Gustav Holst's In the Bleak Mid-Winter
by John France
Michael Short is surely correct in pointing out
that many folk who have never heard The Planets or any
other music by Gustav Holst will “nevertheless have derived
great pleasure from hearing or singing … In the Bleak
suggests that although the composer never sought popularity for
its own sake, he would have been pleased to know that this carol
had been a success.
Interestingly, Imogen Holst writes that “the critical mind
may reject In the Bleak Mid-Winter as sentimental, but
the carol singer finds it entirely satisfactory”.
The carol was written at the express wish of Ralph Vaughan Williams
who was the musical editor of the English Hymnal. Holst’s
involvement with that project is another story.
In the Bleak Mid-Winter is the first of a group of Three
Hymns for the English Hymnal [H73]. The other two were From
Glory to Glory Advancing and Holy Ghost, come down. The
exact date of composition is not known, as the original manuscript
has been lost, but is believed to have been 1904 or 1905. They
were first published in the English Hymnal in 1906. Interestingly,
these three hymns are not included in the composer’s personal
list of works.
The tune that Holst wrote for these words was called Cranham.
This was named after a village in Gloucestershire which lies
between the towns of Cheltenham and Stroud. Holst lived in this
village for a while and it was there, according to a strong tradition,
that he wrote this music. The house is now called ‘Midwinter
‘Cranham’ has been criticised as capable of winning
a contest for “the dreariest melody in a well-liked carol
...” I disagree with this evaluation, although I do accept
that the mood is more appropriate for the first ‘chilly’ verse
than to the more theological verses that follow. However, bearing
in mind that this is a hymn-tune and not an anthem or choral
setting, it is a reasonably well-balanced and largely appropriate
piece. There are slight problems with the irregular metre of
the poem which necessitates the use of additional chords for
some of the poem’s syllables, and I have heard this lead
to some slight confusion in carol services.
The tune is written largely in F major with simple modulations
to the subdominant and the relative minor. Harmonically, there
is little to test the skills of even the most inexperienced choirs,
however there are a few major thirds for the tenors and basses
in the lower register that could lead to problems. The formal
construction of Cranham is A (A) B A.
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,
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,
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
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng’d 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.
Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems edited by Betty
S. Flower London: Penguin
(1979, 1986, 1990)
Christina Rossetti wrote this poem in 1872 for Scribner’s Monthly, an American
Magazine. However it was not published until after the poet’s death in
1904, so it was a ‘new’ hymn when Holst made his setting. It has
always been popular in spite of its somewhat introspective feel. Certainly the
immediately attractive thing about this carol is that Rossetti appears to have
transferred the location of Jesus’ Nativity from Bethlehem to a colder
Northern landscape. It is not too hard to imagine the locality as being something
similar to Robert Bridges’ A Christmas Poem which was set by Gerald
Finzi in his In Terra Pax.
It may be very easy to pick holes in the underlying thought of this carol,
for example is it theologically correct to suggest that:
“ Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain.”
No doubt the current Bishop of Croydon would find the text risible and would
be unable to understand how ‘ox and ass and camel’ could possibly
adore! Yet most people who will sing this carol over the Christmas Season will
not be too perplexed by the philosophical and theological underpinnings of what
is one of the most evocative expressions of the Nativity in the English language.
The poet takes the reader or listener on a journey which on the face of it is
simple, yet in actual fact represents to the Christian a journey of cosmic significance.
To non-believers it is an epitome of what makes Christmas-time so special.
The first verse meditates on the nativity, translating the action from Bethlehem
to England. The poet introduces chilly imagery, such as ‘Frosty wind made
moan’, ‘Earth stood hard as Iron’ and ‘Snow on Snow’.
The second verse juxtaposes the two Advents of Christ - his birth and his coming
in glory at the end of the ages. Yet, the third verse is more homely: it suggests
that the humble circumstances of his birth were not only sufficient but also
appropriate to the necessity of the Incarnation: the whole of creation bows before
Him. The fourth is particularly poignant, with the contrast between the human
Mother and her new-born baby and the fact the Holy Angels were also in attendance
at the birth of the Son of God. It is as if heaven and earth, man, beast and
angels were joined in Universal praise. Finally Christina Rossetti asks herself
and the singer or listener what it means for humanity. She concludes that ‘all’ we
can do is bring our hearts.
In the Bleak Mid-Winter is found in many editions appearing in a wide
variety of publications including Songs of Praise, The Oxford Book of Carols,
Hymns Ancient and Modern (revised edition 1950) the Church Hymnal and the BBC
Hymn Book of 1951. Furthermore, Leslie Woodgate has arranged this work for
male voices and Holst’s daughter, Imogen has provided a version for female voices.
There have been countless recordings of this Carol made over the years,
but perhaps the best known is that of King's
College Cambridge (which you can see on YouTube).
Other composers who have set these words include Harold Darke and the underrated
composer Bruce Montgomery - of ‘Carry On’ film fame. Benjamin Britten
incorporated the text in his masterly A Boy was Born. There is a less
well-known version by Thomas B. Strong. Finally, in 1927 Eric Thiman set this
poem for soloist and piano.