Lesson #327: In the Bleak Midwinter

There are times I learn something and feel I should already have known it. This is one of those times.

I’m a notorious night owl, so there it is, 3:30 in the morning, and I have managed to get myself from an a cappella rendition of Life is a Highway in which the bass blew my mind* to a bunch of English choir boys singing Christmas carols. In four perfectly logical steps.**

Anyway, for those of you who didn’t grow up in the Anglican/Catholic tradition, there are two different versions of In the Bleak Midwinter. There’s the one I like and the one I don’t. Not that that’s particularly helpful to anyone. It’s not even particularly helpful to me. But…I do know which one I like when I hear it. I particularly like the tenor line. It turns out, the tune to the one I like was written by Gustav Holst. I really feel like at some point in my a. years of singing in the church choir when I was a kid and b. years of music education as a whole, I should have learned that.

Then again, the first time I heard the German national anthem, I was completely baffled because the tune is also the tune to the hymn Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken. At least that gap in my knowledge made some sense. And besides that, Haydn composed the tune to back a poem written to rival England’s God Save the King not to be an Anglican hymn.

Back to the topic at hand, I went and did some digging just to see what I could find, and it turns out that the hymn is a relatively new one. Holst composed the music in 1906 to accompany the 1872 poem In the Bleak Midwinter, which was written by Christina Rossetti. Her poem remains unchanged in the lyrics of the hymn.

For the record, my favourite Christmas carol is The Huron Carol, which really couldn’t be more Canadian of me.***

For more see here and here. To hear (the Holst version of) In the Bleak Midwinter sung by delightful English choir boys, see here — and see if you can pick out the tenor line…it’s the best part.

*see last night’s episode of The Sing-Off. Seriously, their bass hit a note I didn’t know was humanly possible (according to my piano, it’s a G#…two octaves below middle C) and turned me into a giggling pile of mush. Chicks dig the bass.

**I am nothing if not my mother’s daughter in my ability to get from one thing to another seemingly unrelated thing in fewer steps than should be possible. If you were wondering, it went: super bass, Avi Kaplan (who is amazing!), Pentatonix’s cover of O Holy Night, Cantique de Noel, In the Bleak Midwinter.

***In case you were wondering how a girl who has no faith (in the liturgical sense) can have favourite Christmas carols — or hymns/anthems at all — the Church has a lot of good music. And I’m partial to good music. Besides, you hear something for 18 years of your life, it tends to stick with you whether you believe the words or not. For example, John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth is one of my favourite pieces of choral music ever, and I can still sing it by heart.

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