Advent Calendar Day 25: In the Bleak Midwinter (Holst), plus a few more

It’s always so difficult to come up with the perfect carol for Christmas Day, because there are so many gorgeous ones.  So today, in the spirit of giving (or perhaps of over-indulgence), I present three.

In the Bleak Midwinter is really one of the more beautiful carols out there, and shows what can happen when you let a poet write your lyrics for you.  (What happens is that every subsequent composer misses out my favourite verse, in fact.  Including this arrangement, but it’s pretty enough that I’ll forgive it.)  I love the word-painting, and the harmonies and the solo in the middle.  Just lovely.

But this is Australia, and it can’t all be about snow and ice, so here’s a carol I learned in Grade 2, I believe. It was written in 1948 by John Wheeler and William G. James, and it’s kind of anachronistic, but we aren’t going to worry about that because any carol that includes black swans ought to be encouraged, in my book.

The third carol today was going to be a crazed mashup of the Carol of the Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by the Piano Guys, but then I said three and giving and thought of three gifts and three kings and then of course I had no choice but to present you with Cornelius’s stunning piece ‘The Three Kings’, which really is, I think, the most gorgeous piece of Christmas music ever written, even if it does, strictly speaking, belong at Ephiphany.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a relaxing break!


Monday Music: Mars, The Bringer of War (Gustav Holst)

For New Year’s Eve, I wanted to choose something which reflected some special part of 2012.  I also liked the idea of something astronomy-oriented, since we are, after all, celebrating another orbit of the Earth around the Sun.  The landing and footage from NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Mars seemed to fit the bill on a historic and astronomic level, and of course the obvious music to match with this is Mars from Holst’s Planets.

Sadly, nobody has quite got to this combination yet, and making a video of this sort is not really within my skill-set, not to mention the fact that there would undoubtedly be copyright issues associated with combining images and music, neither of which I own!  So for today, I’m including two videos for your wonderment and delight (because really, science is amazing stuff).  The first is a clip of Holst’s Mars, accompanied by a computer simulation of Curiosity’s launch and journey.  The second is a video of Curiosity’s landing on Mars on August 6th, 2012.

Happy New Year!  May 2013 bring you more wonders, more music, and more amazing science.  Because we can never have too much amazing science.

(and if you want more images of Mars, checkout NASA’s website here… not to mention this illuminating footage from the Curiosity probe just after landing…)


Advent Calendar Day 16 – In the Bleak Midwinter (Darke *and* Holst)

Another slightly better-known carol, this one with lyrics by Christina Rosetti, who certainly never intended for it to be sung, since it scans differently in every verse. I love this carol for the words, which I find very evocative – of, as it happens, entirely the wrong season for us. This sort of carol reminds me of the Christmas we spent in England when I was a child – though less the Christmas, which was in London, and more the months leading up to it which were spent living at York University, in very storybook English surrounds – icy ponds, stepping stones, red squirrels, proper autumn trees and conkers and medieval and roman ruins. I still love York and undoubtedly view it through the rose-tinted glasses of someone who hasn’t been there for about 17 years, and these words and the clearness of the song remind me of it.

This is not the arrangement which I know well, and which we are singing on Sunday (that would be the Holst arrangement) and which I know better, nor is it the arrangement that I heard sung once when I was at school and am clearly never going to find because I have no idea who the composer was and YouTube just keeps offering me Holst and Darke. I can never decide whether I like this arrangement more than the other, but in the end, I loved the singing of this one, and the soprano and then tenor solo.

Also, the Darke arrangement is really strange if you are are accustomed to Holst – it’s similar enough that it *almost* sounds like it might be a harmony or descant to it (it isn’t – I’ve tried singing one over the other, and they don’t quite work. But it’s very close).

And now I’ve just realised that Darke skips my favourite verse, which is the one about angels and archangels worshiping Jesus night and day while, Mary worships her son with a kiss. There’s a lovely domesticity and humanity about it which I love.  So you are going to have to have *both* versions, even though I don’t really love the singing on the second one, and I’m going to give you the lyrics too, and then you can decide which you like best.

I think I love all of them.

Edited to add: Chanticleer did a magnificent arrangement of the Holst, which is too good not to include, but not at all traditional.  And they skipped the breastful of milk verse, which is also not acceptable.  You have to sing all the verses, people!


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 Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall 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.

Advent Calendar Day 6 – Lullay My Liking (Trad.)

Today’s piece is what happens when I go looking for the version of ‘I saw a maiden’ that we sing in my work Christmas choir and find every other setting of that carol, ever, but not the one I’m looking for.

I haven’t heard this one before, but it’s staying in my head. The recording is from 1948, and the singers are Isobel Baillie, Gladys Ripley, John McHugh and Harold Williams. The style of singing is one I think of as slightly old-fashioned (I think they teach singers to use less vibrato these days? There is certainly something characteristic about the vocal style that sounds to me like an older generation.

My great-grandmother was a singer of this generation (I have a photo of her dressed as Cherubino – the one in the header of this blog, in fact – which suggests that her vocal range was similar to mine), and sang on the radio in Austria in, I think, the 1930s. I don’t think I ever heard her sing, but I’m constantly fascinated by the idea of another semi-professional singer in the family. I can’t help wondering if she sounded a bit like Isobel Baillie…

Perhaps it’s the elusive family history aspect, but this is another piece that appeals to me for the sense of history and continuity over time. I love the feel of these old recordings, and of course the words themselves are far older, and date to the middle ages.