Music/Popular Culture

Today’s Christmas Song–“In the Bleak Midwinter”

This is such a lovely song that it comes in versions by multiple composers, two in particular. The first and better known comes to us from Gustav Holst, the German-English composer; the second from English composer Harold Darke (1888-1976). It’s the second version that was voted best Christmas carol of all time in a poll of English choirmasters in 2008. They have a point. The lyrics are from a poem by Christina Rosetti, written for Scribner’s Magazine in 1872. You can find the full lyrics here. Here’s the Holst version, courtesy of Jim Booth:

Here’s the less familiar Darke version, which was included in The English Hymnal, put together by Ralph Vaughan Williams, in 1906. The tune actually is an older hymn named Cranham, from a town in Gloucerstershire, and what Darke produces is musically quite complex, with each verse having a slightly different treatment. The Darke version is what shows up in the traditional Nine Lessons and Carols in British cathedrals this time of year.

One of the reasons I like this song is that it sounds just as good when sung by a solitary singer. This isn’t true of many carols, which were often specifically written for choirs. Somehow “Silent Night” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” don’t quite cut it when sung by a single singer—they’re meant to be group exercises. But “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” is one of the few Christmas songs that breaks this rule. Not that they’re all particularly good, but this is a song that it’s pretty hard to ruin (although Annie Lennox, Sara Mclachlan and Chrissie Hinde give it their best.) Here’s a nice and only slightly sappy version from Shawn Colvin:

And perhaps my favorite version, from Pierce Pettis:

And you know who else? Susan Boyle, nicely understated (except for the choir, but even that works):

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