Monday, December 21, 2009

“In the Bleak Midwinter”

The solstice is here, a season when the light comes out of darkness. Festivities recognizing this time of year date back very far in human history, & of course, at least since the Fourth Century C.E., the Christian church has also celebrated the birth of Jesus at this time of year (it appears that this practice probably didn’t much pre-date the Fourth Century, as some earlier Church Fathers specifically prohibited any type of winter holidays).

One of the most beautiful carols celebrating this was the product of an odd collaboration; the lyrics are a poem by the very much underrated 19th century poet Christina Rossetti (pictured at the top of the post), with music added by Gustav Holst in the early 20th century—the poem has also been set to music by Harold Darke, Thomas Strong & Benjamin Britten.

The video below is yours truly playing a guitar arrangement by Doug Sparling of Holst’s setting (I made a few interpolations, but almost all of the arrangement is Sparling’s). The arrangement is for guitar in the DADGAD tuning—so called because those are the notes of the open strings, as opposed to EADGBE in standard tuning. The DADGAD tuning is particularly used by fingerstyle guitarists exploring British Isles folk music—the open strings taken as a whole are a “suspended chord”—one that is neither major nor minor, but hovering somewhere in between. It’s a lovely tuning, & one that loves to have open strings ringing.

I’ve also included the words to Rossetti’s beautiful poem after the video. But if you’re singing along, watch out! The poem is five stanzas long, & I only play the song thru three times. Hope you enjoy this.

In the Bleak Mindwinter

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 incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day
A breast full of milk
And a manger full 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 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


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Oh, John! Thank you for this beautiful collaboration of music, poetry, and images. Christina Rossetti is a favorite of mine, and finding her here with your playing and pictures is a treat I will come back to as this solstice day progresses. (Comment above deleted because of typo!)

  3. This was an exceptionally beautiful post, John. I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it, especially your music and slideshow. The portrait of Rossetti reminds me of myself! ;^)

    I adore the “Dona Nobis Pacem girl" on your sidebar, btw.

  4. Hi Karen & Willow

    Karen: Christina Rossetti was a tremendous poet. So glad you liked this, & happy birthday!

    Willow: Thanks! You do look a bit like C Rossetti, & yes the Dona Nobis Pacem girl is way cool.

  5. I've been humming this tune for weeks. The internet turned up the words which I had forgotten a bit. I just think the tune and the words go so beautifully together. I had also forgotten how beautiful the Dona Nobis Pacem round was too! Many thanks and Merry Christmas.Do you know "Oxen Cribbed in Barn and Byre, Stand Upon the Midnight Earth" I wonder" -- don't know who wrote the music or words, but that was another old school choir favorite.

  6. Hi Jane: Thank you, & thanks for stopping by. I don't know the song you mentioned, but I'll go looking around to see if I can find it.

  7. Ah, John - I had planned to post this song tomorrow. There's something about that first verse that brings me to tears every time - "water like a stone," and "snow on snow." Fabulous. Thank you for posting - and playing - one of my favourite songs.

  8. Magical ,John, beautifully played.And is there anything more Christmassy than a real Christmas tree growing in your garden and covered in snow?

  9. Hi Sandra & TFE:

    Sandra: It is a beautiful song, & the poem is also beautifully written; I do think the "snow on snow" line is especially memorable. Glad you liked it!

    TFE: Thanks! Actually, one of those trees was a living Christmas tree in the house several years back--the Newport Pine (tall slender evergreen seen thru rose hips about halfway thru the video)

  10. I'm very fond of Holst's music. I think he is underestimated. The Planets Suite is "too famous for it's own good" - it's heard so much people don't realise how daringly original it is (I think). He wrote a fantastic set of songs for violin and voice, then there's the Hymns from the Rig Veda... etc., etc., I could go on.

    I was only playing ITBM on the guitar myself last night - fingerpicking and singing, as it happened. I checked out the music - I'd forgotten Holst had written it! No wonder I like it.

  11. Hi Dominic: It's a beautiful song. I don't know Holst's work very well--don't know if Eberle does or not--she has a much deeper "classical" background than I do. I'll try to make a point to listen to some.


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