Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Marriage of Words and Music for Christmas

At Christmastime, we turn to carols to express the season in words and music. Although some may be traced back for centuries, we rarely sing them any more; most of the familiar ones originated in the 19th century (although Adeste fideles dates from the mid-18th century).

When it comes to choosing carols, we are most likely to prefer the ones we heard as children. Yet there are some that stand out for their almost perfect union between words and music. For Christmas 2018, I would like to present you with first the text, then two different settings, and three different performances, of a particularly lovely carol in order to illustrate my point. First, the text -- by the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, as first published in Scribner's Monthly in January 1872:

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 meter is as stark as the setting. Even though snow does not normally fall in Bethlehem, Rossetti probably has in mind John Milton's imagery of pure driven snow at the Savior's birth as necessary to cover the ugly sins of mankind (On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, lines 37-44). In the second stanza, she draws on imagery from the Book of Revelation to draw a paradox with the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth. The third and fourth stanzas create similar contrasting images of striking simplicity, while the final stanza expresses the author's own humility when faced with her creator God.

The lyrical form of the poem invited a simple, homophonic setting which composer Gustav Holst gave it in 1906. In doing so, he gave the world a new and wonderful carol. Listen to its beauty -- and to its perfect marriage of music with words -- in this classic performance by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge:

Just three years after Holst's composition, Harold Darke, a young organ student at the Royal College of Music in London, gave the poem another stellar setting, in which again the simple homophony sparkles with cascades of passing tones and unexpected chord progressions that serve to emphasize the purity of the infant Savior amidst his crude, rustic surroundings. Here is a lovely performance of the tune under the direction of John Rutter:

To drive the point home, here is a final performance of the Holst setting (just the first and last stanzas), which I can describe only as sung by an angel (who in this case is the Norwegian soprano, Sissel Kyrkjebø). She is accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle choir and orchestra.

A blessed and joyful Christmas to all my readers!


  1. Thank you for uncommonly beautiful carol, in two uncommonly beautiful settings.

    As to there not being snow in Bethlehem, I have no knowledge of that myself, but Mr. Chesterton made the following observations in his "New Jerusalem," his account of his own impressions of the holy city about a century ago:

    "When Jerusalem had been half buried in snow for two or three days, I remarked to a friend that I was prepared henceforward to justify all the Christmas cards. The cards that spangle Bethlehem with frost are generally regarded by the learned merely as vulgar lies. At best they are regarded as popular fictions, like that which made the shepherds in the Nativity Play talk a broad dialect of Somerset. In the deepest sense of course this democratic tradition is truer than most history. But even in the cruder and more concrete sense the tradition about the December snow is not quite so false as is suggested. It is not a mere local illusion for Englishmen to picture the Holy Child in a snowstorm, as it would be for the Londoners to picture him in a London fog. There can be snow in Jerusalem, and there might be snow in Bethlehem; and when we penetrate to the idea behind the image, we find it is not only possible but probable. In Palestine, at least in these mountainous parts of Palestine, men have the same general sentiment about the seasons as in the West or the North. Snow is a rarity, but winter is a reality. Whether we regard it as the divine purpose of a mystery or the human purpose of a myth, the purpose of putting such a feast in winter would be just the same in Bethlehem as it would be in Balham. Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate."

  2. I stand corrected by a truly authoritative source, rick -- thank you for bringing Chesterton to our attention. I have amended my text accordingly. I am very glad you enjoyed the music with the text.

  3. Here's my favorite rendition. It's been my favorite since the first time I heard it. Merry Christmas, Mr. Haley. To you and all that possess the knowledge to hold this page in high regard. (And a special hug to a personal friend, El Gringo Viejo and his lovely Bride.)

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  5. King's did the Darke version in this years Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. You can hear it here (for the next month):

    Although mainly associated with St Michael's, Cornhill, it's interesting that Darke did actually serve as Director of Music at King's during the second world war.

    The current director, Stephen Cleobury, and I go back a long way. We sang together at Worcester under Douglas Guest (who took over from Sir David Willcocks when he moved to King's in 1957).

    Stephen is due to retire next year, so it was fitting that his last Service should be the 100th anniversary of the first service held in Cambridge in 1918.

  6. Sir John Goss' setting of another carol devoted to the Holy Child and to His mission on this earth:

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  8. I knew the first tune, but not the second. Both are lovely.

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