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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 Mid-winter.” He 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 Cottage’.

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.

In the bleak mid-winter
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,
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 mid-winter
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 down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

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.

John France
December 2009 

 


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