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.


Lesson #251: Back In the Hall of the Mountain King

Autobiographical note: This post isn’t entirely random. I’m in the process of organizing my iTunes. It’s a long, tedious process and it’s making me a little bit crazy.*

A while ago, I wrote a post about Sextus Tarquinius that made brief reference to the Grieg piece having lyrics — because apparently it’s set to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt.**

The Ibsen play, his last written in verse, is based on the Norwegian fairytale Per Gynt, which is about the eponymous hero saving milkmaids from trolls and slaying giant worms. The play was meant to be a satire of contemporary Norwegian self and drew heavy criticism from such heavyweights as Hans Christian Anderson.***

*The way iTunes decides on album art makes me a little homocidal. Why it’ll assign cover art to one song, but not another from the same album is beyond me. I like consistency; if one song gets album art, the rest of them get album art. So this is a long process of manually going in and assigning cover art to songs.

**I knew the music was from Peer Gynt, I just didn’t know it was written to be produced in conjunction with an Ibsen play. Incidentally, Grieg and Ibsen are literally all I know of the 19th century Norwegian arts scene.

***More information on the Ibsen play here.

Lesson #27: Strauss…es

It is obscene the amount of classical music I know that I can hum for you, but couldn’t name and/or tell you the composers. (Sorry Mom!) I’m okay with the obvious ones and I have an uncanny ability to figure out a composer (or at least his contemporaries) based on chord progression alone, but when it comes to ‘The Anvil Chorus’ or ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, I’m terrible.* And if you ask me about Copland’s Hoedown (from Rodeo), I’ll know it, and be able to name it, when I hear it, but when I try to bring it to mind, what I get is Tchaikovsky’s Russian dance from The Nutcracker.**

So imagine my surprise last week when I went to look up Strauss and found out there were two. Because I didn’t have the time to bother with it — I was looking up the plotline of what we had seen at the State Opera in Budapest*** because it was sung in German and spoken in Hungarian and we were pretty much at a loss for the entirety of the third act — I’m looking it up now.

It turns out that Johann, composer of Die Fledermaus,  (which is what we saw) not only wrote ‘The Blue Danube’ (a piece I loathe), but not Also Sprach Zarathustra (the introduction of which you know as the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey). That piece was written by Richard, which actually makes sense because Johann had an affinity for waltzes (seriously) and Also Sprach Zarathustra is really, really nothing at all like a waltz. Or any of Johann’s stuff at all, really. And yet, in my head there was only one Strauss.

Richard was a buddy of the Nazis (like Wagner, who composed one of my favourite pieces of all time, Siegfried’s Funeral March) and falls into the late romantic period, whereas Johann was a generation ahead of him.****

I’m 30, I’ve been classically trained in two instruments and it has taken me until today to realize that there’s a reason why it’s odd that one person should have written a gazillion waltzes AND Thus Sprach Zarathustra. My music teachers would be horrified.

*Google tells me ‘The Anvil Chorus’ is from Verdi’s Il Travatore and Dukas wrote ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.’

**A couple months back, I learned that Offenbach wrote the ‘Cancan Suite’ (which is actually called ‘Infernal Galop’) and it’s from Orpheus in the Underworld and that the song that is the Olympic theme song is actually a real piece of music…not that I didn’t think it was, just that I always thought it was a jingle.*****  How I went so long without that knowledge is truly beyond me.

***The Hungarian State Opera is one of the most beautiful opera houses I have ever seen…keeping in the grand tradition of Eastern European opera houses, I suppose.

****More on Johann can be read here, on Richard, here.

*****Apparently, it’s called ‘The Bugler’s Dream’ and it was written by the French composer Leo Arneau.