Christmas Music Matters: In the Bleak Midwinter

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Today, the Day after Christmas, is significant in many ways.

In Western Christianity, it is the second day of Christmas, and the Feast of St. Stephen the Protomartyr. In countries of British culture, it is Boxing Day, the day for gifts.

In Eastern, Byzantine Greek, Christianity, it is the Synaxis (Commemoration) of the Theotokos, as well as the post-feast of Christmas. Because of the development of the custom of Synaxes, St. Stephen’s Feast is moved one day to December 27.

I thought today it would be pleasant to focus on a less well-known carol, and a beautiful one.

Christina Georgina Rossetti (5 December 1830 – 29 December 1894) was a poet of the English Romantic Period in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Around 1872, she published “In the Bleak Midwinter,” in Scribner’s Monthly

The poem describes the physical circumstances of the birth at Bethlehem, and is based on comparison and contrasts in the physical and spiritual circumstances. Its theology is sophisticated and significant, mirroring the concept of the Platitera, the Theotokos who bears within herself that which all reality cannot contain.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air –
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

The poem, whose meter is irregular, was first set as a congregational hymn by Gustav Holst in 1906, with a melody, “Cranham,” which enables a congregation to sing this hymn:

Another, musically more complex setting for choirs was written in 1909 by  Harold Edwin Darke:

Benjamin Britten included a decidedly modern and atmospheric setting in his choral composition, A Boy was Born:

Here is the whole Britten A Boy was Born, a remarkable work for chorus:

“In the Bleak Midwinter” was featured in the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas special, “A Christmas Carol,” sung by Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins:

And finally, a very meditative rendition of the Holst setting by San Francisco’s own Chanticleer, from their album Sing We Christmas:

Merry Christmas!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

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