Tuesday, December 25, 2007

In the bleak midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, 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 midwinter, 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 midwinter 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 before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, 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

Christina Rossetti wrote this poem before 1872 in response to a request from the magazine, Scribner's Monthly, for a Christmas poem. It was published posthumously in Rossetti's Poetic Works in 1904 and appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906.

Although Christmas was linked by the 4th century church with 25th December as part of a strategy to Christianize various mid-winter solstice pagan festivals, there is no biblical association of the birth of Jesus with mid-winter, nor indeed, would such an inclement climate have existed in Palestine. Nevertheless, the deep winter of England emphasizes the magnitude of the God/Man’s condescension; from the Glory of Heaven to a lonely stable in abject poverty. The English word “bleak” captures His destination so well.

Rossetti came from a well known literary and artistic family. Her father, Gabriele Rossetti, in political exile in England, was a professor of Italian at King’s College in London. Her brothers Dante Gabriel and William Michael were among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which gave birth to the 19th Century English art movement of the same name. The Pre-Raphaelites, for whom Christina was a frequent model, also included Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, John Everett Millais, William Morris, John Ruskin and James McNeill Whistler. Her family friends included Charles Dodgson (better known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll), author of Alice in Wonderland. She was deeply religious, so much so that she refused the proposal of marriage from a man she loved deeply and thereafter became prone to melancholy.

The text of this Christmas poem has been set to music many times, the two most famous settings being composed by Gustav Holst and Harold Edwin Darke in the early 20th century. Most congregations sing the Holst version which specifically composed for congregational singing in 1905. Throughout his career Holst advocated writing music for the masses, as well as for the musically astute; therefore, much of the composer's repertoire including hymns, music for military band, and numerous songs was written with the amateur musician in mind. Many of these "lighter" compositions have stood the test of time because even though they are made of relatively simple stuff, they still bear the mark of Holst's careful and loving craftsmanship.

Around the beginning of 1905, a group of clergymen created a committee with the purpose of updating the hymn book called Hymns Ancient and Modern. This hymnal was considered to be old-fashioned, so new hymns were to be added. Percy Dearmer, a fellow clergyman and professor of Ecclesiastical Art at King's College in London, was named chairman of this committee. Ralph Vaughan Williams was chosen to be the music editor, whose task was to make all final decisions on which hymns would be added. Vaughan Williams was skeptical of this duty, but accepted the post upon being promised that the work required would only take two months. In actuality, the project wasn't completed until two years later. With Holst aiding in the editing process, Vaughan Williams looked to include "the finest hymn tunes in the world." Folk tunes and traditional songs would be added, as well as songs by earlier English composers, such as Thomas Tallis. English composers of the time were invited by Vaughan Williams to create new hymns for the updated hymnal. It was soon evident that the addendum would be comparable in size to the original hymnal, so it was decided that an entirely new hymn book would be produced, under the title of The English Hymnal. Holst composed three original hymns based on previously gathered folk tunes for this new volume. In the Bleak Midwinter is set to text by Christina Rossetti and the folk tune used is known as "Cranham," named after the town in which it was collected. It is believed that Holst actually composed the hymn while staying in this village for a short amount of time, and a cottage in the village was eventually named Midwinter Cottage.

Gustav Holst (21 September 1874 - 25 May 1934), the well known English composer, was a music teacher for over 20 years. He is most famous for his orchestral suite The Planets. Having studied at the Royal College of Music in London, his early work was influenced by Ravel, Grieg, Richard Strauss, and fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams, but most of his music is highly original, with influences from Hindu spiritualism and English folk tunes. Holst's music (he wrote almost 200 catalogued compositions, including orchestral suites, operas, ballets, concertos, choral hymns, and songs) is well known for unconventional use of metre and haunting melodies.

He became music master at St Paul's Girls' School in 1905 and also director of music at Morley College in 1907, continuing in both posts until retirement. He was the brother of Hollywood actor Ernest Cossart, and father of the composer and conductor Imogen Holst, who wrote a biography of her father in 1938.

Holst was born in 1874 at 4 Clarence Road, Cheltenham, to a family of Swedish extraction (by way of Latvia and Russia). The house was opened as a museum of Holst's life and times in 1974. He was educated at Cheltenham Grammar School for Boys.

Holst's grandfather, Gustavus von Holst of Riga, Latvia, a composer of elegant harp music, moved to England, becoming a notable harp teacher. Holst's father Adolph Holst, an organist, pianist, and choirmaster, taught piano lessons and gave recitals; and his English mother, Clara von Holst, who died when Gustav was eight, was a singer. As a frail child whose early recollections were musical, Holst had been taught to play piano and violin, and began composing when he was about twelve.
He died of complications following stomach surgery, in London, on May 25, 1934. His ashes were interred at Chichester Cathedral in West Sussex, with Bishop George Bell giving the memorial oration at the funeral.

The Darke version, with its beautiful and delicate organ accompaniment, was written in 1911 and has also gained popularity among choirs in recent years, after the King's College Choir included it on its radio broadcasts of the Nine Lessons and Carols. (Incidentally, Darke served as conductor of the choir during World War II.)

Harold Darke was born 29 October 1888 in London and died 28 November 1976, in Cambridge. He received his formal training at the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford, and at Oxford. He had a world-wide reputation as one of the finest organists and choristers of his era. He held positions at Emmanuel Church, West Hampstead (1906) and subsequently at St. James, Paddington.

During his fifty years (1916-66) as organist at St. Michael's, Cornhill (London), his weekly recitals, which included the entire organ works of Bach, made him a city institution. In 1919 he founded the Saint Michael's Singers and remained its conductor until 1966. In his choral festivals he presented not only established masterworks, but championed the little-known music of contemporary composers such as Vaughan Williams and Charles Hubert Parry. Darke's numerous compositions are mostly, but by no means exclusively, choral and organ works. They are generally serious and reflective in character.

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