Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Deeply Moving Song


Midwinter-blogging, essay 12 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

The King's College Choir sings "In the Bleak Midwinter" in
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England.

A Deeply Moving Song

I think it would be a mistake to entirely neglect a mention of the musical settings in this midwinter blogging series.  When I first began research on “In the Bleak Midwinter,” I knew and loved the song through its Gustav Holst setting.  Therefore, I was delighted to discover that “In the Bleak Midwinter” had been named “Best Carol of All Time” by a 2008 BBC music magazine poll of choirmasters and other choral experts.  However, looking into the matter a bit further, I found that it was a Harold Darke setting—and not the Holst I knew and loved—that achieved this acclaim.  Up to that point, I hadn’t even heard the Darke music.

The results of the BBC poll still strike me as odd but I’m willing to accept this is what you get when you poll people in the choral business rather than the general public.  The songs they chose are lovely, even if rather unfamiliar:

1. In the Bleak Midwinter
2. In Dulci Jubilo
3. A Spotless Rose
4. Bethlehem Down
5. Lully, Lulla
6. Tomorrow Shall be My Dancing Day
7. There is No Rose
8. O Come All Ye Faithful
9. Of the Father's Heart Begotten
10. What Sweeter Music

I like the appreciation that Jeremy Pound, deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine, issued in defense of their #1 pick on the Christmas hit parade:  “While some of the carols nominated may seem unfamiliar, does any other song get to the very heart of Christmas as understatedly but effectively as ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’?”  Furthermore, Pound said that “In the Bleak Midwinter” was “nigh-on perfect as a carol text…  There’s the winter cold, the coming of Christ, the description of the nativity scene and, finally, that ‘What shall I give him?’ moment of self-reflection. And then there’s the music.”

The Holst setting was composed at the request of his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams for the 1906 Anglican Hymnal.  It was written as a simple hymn, not a choral arrangement, and the melody received the name “Cranham” for the town Cranham, Gloucestershire where it was written.

The original Harold Darke setting was conceived as a choral arrangement with organ accompaniment and tenor and soprano solos.  Darke composed it in 1909, a few years after Holst contributed his version to the hymnal.  Thanks to seasonal broadcasts of the King’s College Choir singing “In the Bleak Midwinter,” this arrangement has become very well known in England.  In the United States, it remains much less familiar.

Kate McGarrigle performing
"In the Bleak Midwinter."
I think both versions are great and it’s been a real pleasure compiling great performances of both arrangements on the Music Room sections of this blog.

Today’s closing selection is particularly moving.  Brother and sister Rufus and Martha Wainwright sing the Darke setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” accompanied by their mother Kate McGarrigle in her last public performance at the Royal Albert Hall.  She died six weeks later of sarcoma.  It’s beautiful to see this very talented family performing together, expressing their love for each other 
through the words and music of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, and Kate McGarrigle.

The Music Room

Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, and Kate McGarrigle sing “In the Bleak Midwinter”…



Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2012 Lee Price

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