I sang in the choir at St. Marks under the brilliant tutelage and leadership of iconic Choirmaster L. F O’Connor for several years and was a member of that famous choir invited to stand in for the Westminster Cathedral Choir while they went on world tour. We were the first choir outside the UK to be so invited. I went on to St. Dunstan’s in Providence, RI where I was one of the two mainstays a capella soprano soloists (Billy Duquette was the other and better of the two) under the very able leadership of Choirmaster T. James Hallan who was also the Music Director at Lincoln School and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Providence. I think it a shame, yea injustice, that there are no more references to Hallan on the Internet given his absolute genius and lifetime of dedicated tutelage and successful mentorship of young men and women. I owe him a lot. Though he would certainly disagree, he should be canonized for his efforts.
At St. Marks we sang (they still do) the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (inspired by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge) as well as their then famous Boars Head Dinner replete with the obligatory roasted boar with apple in mouth which was carried into the candlelit banquet hall on a huge silver platter all to the strains of the medieval Boar’s Head Carol, “The boar’s head in hand bring I, bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.” The Boar was the iconic and ferocious monarch of the Great Britain forests, a palpable threat to man and the unquestionable symbol of evil (just ask the folks in one neighborhood in Loma Linda, California who recently engaged a 200+ lbs. tusker!). Serving the boar in this ceremony which dates from the 14th century was the great metaphor – the triumph of Christ over evil.
I vividly recall how my Robin Hood era, maternally-tailored costume (with tights) made me itch something terrible. Mother Betty Buxton said that the home where we actually ate a full, multi course authentic medieval dinner (no spaghetti or egg rolls here) while performing a variety of Christmas music was a huge north Dallas mansion with Flemish tapestries on the wall. The spectators were parents and Friends who occupied the gallery that overlooked the spacious dining area. I remember it as a much smaller though still impressive version of the Biltmore House’s Great Banquet Hall. What a wonderful memory… There has to be some video somewhere… By the way, if you haven’t done the Biltmore House Christmas Tour in Asheville, North Carolina then you cannot count yourself as having led a full life - yet.
Though just a very young neophyte chorister at Cathedral School and St. Marks, St. Dunstan’s afforded me the opportunity to grow and shine as a sometimes soprano soloist and that included my infamous role and performance as the female lead (all boy’s school) for their Christmas production of Babes in Toyland at Brown University.
While at St. Dunstan’s and later at Lenox School I remember singing many songs/carols that inspire me to this day. One of those songs and the focus of this post was Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter. Rossetti wrote a Christmas poem for the American magazine, Scribner’s Monthly in 1872. Like many of our Christmas traditions, it is essentially contemporary and assumes that Jesus was born on December 25 in a winter landscape. While we know better now, that sentiment evoked more poignant images of a couple struggling against even greater odds with their new, divinely inspired baby. It worked.
That poem has been put to music many, many times with the most notable and beautiful tune written by Gustav Holst who was living in the English village of Cranham at the time and appropriately in a house now called “Midwinter Cottage.” Holst wrote the exquisitely poignant and hauntingly quiet and peaceful tune for the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal.
Another tune (similar to Holst) was composed several years later in 1909 by Harold Darke, then a student at the Royal College of Music who was to later achieve fame as an acclaimed organist and Director of Music at King's College, Cambridge. While Darke’s song has met with some favor of late, I think it much more complicated than the Holst version. I find the melody distracting as it varies from verse to verse. No surprise that I personally don’t like Darke’s version as Holst seems to suit my mostly melancholy mood and the predictability of a more somber, flowing reflection. The choir at All Saints Episcopal in Atlanta, Georgia under the direction of the multitalented organist and choirmaster Ray Chenault (and wife Beth) has sung a contemplative Midwinter (sitting) as a communion hymn and choral interlude while folks were partaking in the Eucharist. It was always a beautiful, quietly fluid and fitting accompaniment for meditation and prayer.
I guess I also feel a little miffed that anybody in a copycat mode (OK, OK) would have tried to improve on perfection (several others have also attempted to do so). Indeed, In the Bleak Midwinter has proven to be one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time, witness the BBC Music magazine's 2008 poll of the world's leading choirmasters and choral experts who voted it (Darke’s version) the top Christmas hymn, ever. There has been some controversy over the selection with many feeling the judges were more impressed by the complexity of the tune in contrast to what mere mortals might choose. And that brings us to the point of this post – to share some of the more popular versions, all Holst save two, so that you can appreciate and judge the song(s) and the two versions for yourself. Both are beautiful.
Both settings of In the Bleak Midwinter have been recorded by what is a veritable pantheon of who’s who of popular recording artists from around the world including but not limited to Sarah McLachlan-Darke (2006), James Taylor (2006), Bert Jansch (1974), Moya Brennan (First Lady of Celtic Music - 2005), Julie Andrews (1982), Robin Gibb (2006), Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (1994), Corrinne May (2007), Charlotte Church (2000), Sissel Kyrkjebo (2006), Cyndi Lauper (1998), Allison Crowe (2006), Frida (ABBA) 2004, Sarah Brightman (2008), Olivia Newton-John (2008) and as well as by many choirs and groups including the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers (1993), Moody Blues (2003), Chanticleer–Darke (1995), Steeleye Span-Maddy Prior (2004), the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Paul Hiller & Theater of Voices (1994), Paul Coleman Trio – PC3 –(2002), Aled Jones (2005), The Choirboys (2008), Celtic Woman - Máiréad Nesbitt (2007), Lichfield Cathedral Choir – Darke (1996), Gloucester Cathedral Choir (2003), Choir of King's College Cambridge (2005), St. John's College Choir, Cambridge (1986), Worcester Cathedral Choir (1993), Choir of St. Mark’s School (2003) and many, many more. Of course, many of the choirs sing both versions of Midwinter to especially include the Choir of Kings College-Cambridge.
A lot of singers from different genres attempt the same songs, each with their own physical and mental interpretations, nuance and style staying aloof or with more or less personal emotion, passion and expression in their performance becoming one with the music, the message and its cultural context. The difference in the approaches determines whether one is music or noise… eye of the beholder stuff. Most of these dynamic performers have become part of the history and tradition of Midwinter because of their passion and fervor for the music, the lyrics and their ultimate motivation – the celebration of the birth of Christ. And, that’s what it’s all about.
Now please understand that this is a long piece and intended for those with patience and anticipation, a love of Midwinter and an appreciation for the history of the piece. If you can’t stay the course and review some of the artists we have featured (thanks to YouTube) then you can opt out and just listen to one track. This particular Celtic Christmas CD (surprise, surprise) has 16 different artists/groups singing a portion of the Holst setting of Midwinter. The artists include Allison Crowe, Cyndi Lauper, Moya (Màire) Brennan, Crash Test Dummies, Gregorian, Bert Jansch, the Pipettes, James Taylor, Polifonico Monteforte, Westminster Cathedral Choir, Wells Cathedral Choir, St Philips Boy's Choir (Libera), Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, Holland Boys Choir, Julie Andrews and John Fahey. It’s well done and interprets The Story across many musical genres. We do pray that these hyperlinks hold and remain active in YouTube.
If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations! The first individual recording (again, all thanks to YouTube) of Holst's setting is sung by one of England's great cathedral choirs at Glouchester Cathedral (Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Undivided Trinity). This massive Gothic cathedral’s foundation was laid in the 11th century on top of an older abbey that dated to 678 CE. I’m used to High Church (smells and bells) and the extraordinary music programs like Gloucester. Take special note when the congregation joins the choir in song. It is an exhilarating musical experience. This is an extraordinary offering from an extraordinary church.
We immediately switch from Gloucester in south west central England north 124 miles northwest of London, the west midlands and the Gothic Cathedral at Lichfield and home to the world famous Lichfield Cathedral choir which historians reflect dates from the year 1200 CE. Lichfield concedes that their current Choral Foundation traces back at least as far as 1315 CE. The first cathedral to be built on the present site was in 700 CE by the Saxons, followed by the Normans in 1085 CE onto the present colossal Gothic structure with its distinctive and unique three spires, begun in 1195. The Lichfield Cathedral Choir has cut many records, CDs and music videos among them their 1996 CD Christmas from Lichfield which was preceded by their 1995 video which we offer today. Lichfield gives us a robust view of Darke’s setting of Midwinter. Their music program is unparalleled.
From British High Church to American icon James Taylor who in his James Taylor at Christmas album offers a hauntingly and painfully beautiful version – pure vintage James Taylor.
Back to the Anglican Church and The Choirboys who are comprised of English cathedral choristers from across England so we can suppose that members will have only a brief time (in human years) to participate as such given the predictability of that painful trek to adolescence and the inevitable breaking of the voice and the loss of their treble status. I experienced that as I went from treble/soprano to alto to tenor to baritone and oblivion. At the end I was mouthing the words at the insistence of the choirmaster and then worked my senior year as one of the Sextons at Trinity Church in Lenox, MA. The ignominy of it all - all the kings men and all the kings horses… My pilgrimage from choir stall in the Chancel to the congregation proper was demoralizing (as Mother said, “Ghastly”) especially when combined with so many other changes that were happening in my life… As a baritone in the Chorus I did rehearse Handel’s Messiah the other night over at the Anglican The Chapel of the Cross in Dallas (like riding a bicycle…). My thanks to the generosity and hospitality of superb mezzo soprano Nicole de Martimprey.
As you will see, the present Choirboys are at least second generation and are perfectly outstanding in their 2007 offering of Midwinter from their The Carols Album.
It seems that the soprano voice, female or choirboy is the perfect fit for this melody proof being the English born but New Zealand raised rising star Camilla Kerslake who made this song a part of her first album (Camilla Kerslake) in 2009. If she has ever had diction problems in the past, she now appears beyond that and nails this version of Midwinter which is worthy of your ear… Pray that we all hear more from this Lady with the only caveat being that she keeps away from her makeup case. She’s very attractive and doesn’t need any help. Watch her vocal technique - the way Camilla enunciates and mouths her words. That’s the correct way – the way we were taught at St. Marks.
So this song is only for soprano? Chanticleer, the extraordinary San Francisco based full-time classical vocal (a cappella) ensemble answers that question. Founded in 1978 to sing Renaissance vocal repertoire this group has travelled the world and gained an unparalleled reputation for their interpretation of music from all genres – no different their version of Midwinter from their 1995 Sing We Christmas album which reached #6 on Billboard’s Classical chart. Gang - it doesn’t get any better. This may be where all good trebles go when they transition to maturity.
While we suspect that Camilla Kerslake probably has some Celtic DNA we are assured that is a certainty with our next several artists of that genre. They represent the best of the lot and we are pleased to feature them. Born in Manitoba and now living in Ontario, Loreena McKennitt is pure Canadian Celt- of Scottish and Irish parentage. Her music is grounded by her appreciation and passion for diverse cultures with her heroism showing mightily through. She is a composer, musician (Celtic harp, piano and accordion) and singer with numerous original works which celebrate many cultures of the Celtic Journey. Loreena McKennitt’s (on harp) In The Bleak Midwinter is a powerful instrumental piece from her 2008 holiday album A Midwinter Night's Dream where she successfully recaptures, “some of the frankincense and myrrh” of the music of the winter season. I have most of her albums and intend to collect and enjoy them all. I’d bet the farm that Celtic Harp Champion, the incredibly talented, late Jan Pennington would be the equal of Loreena. Enjoy.
If you start invoking the Celtic harp can the fiddle be far behind? For me that means either Scotland’s Master Fiddler Alasdair Fraser of Valley of the Moon fame, Cape Breton’s Natalie MacMaster or Ireland’s Máiréad Nesbitt of Celtic Woman. Since I can’t find a version by Fraser or MacMaster we reliability put our good faith in Nesbitt that animated knock out, drop dead gorgeous All Ireland Fiddle Champion and violinist/fiddler for PBS phenoms Celtic Woman. Her offering of Midwinter with violin is beautiful and haunting. Holst would approve of the energetic and inventive Celtic lass from Tipperary who dares you to not get involved in her music. Some say that she’s just as good on piano and we would wonder how long Celtic Woman can challenge her. Kind restores your faith in the Almighty, Eh?
I share the same birth year as Bert Jansch - one of my favorite all time Scottish singer/songwriters (Glasgow) who takes the Scots perspective in folk revival to its highest point. Sometimes referred to as the British Bob Dylan or perhaps Dylan is the American Bert Jansch? Bert’s unique gravelly almost gruff voice and brooding, plaintive sometimes almost mumbling style is immediately recognizable and for me is the template for all successful Scottish singers. Bert has always done it his way and as a veteran of the booze wars and multiple heart bypass surgery, he has been there, done that and is now reinvigorated and better than ever. This innovative and accomplished acoustic guitarist brings me back to my youth but keeps me squarely in the present. His interpretation of Midwinter (originally released as a single in UK in October, 1974) is absolutely superb and as one reviewer recently stated, Jansch is, “damn near perfect.” I sure would like to see what a contemplative and serious Alex Beaton could do with this hymn.
The 1960’s saw the formation and evolution of the iconic soft rock English band, The Moody Blues who offered us many popular hits including Knights in White Satin which I could sing in my sleep. I love the Moody Blues – Blue Cathedral! The on-off-on again seemingly spiritual Moodies play into their sometimes melancholia by recording Midwinter on their October 2003 Christmas-themed album appropriately entitled December. Their always moving songs included originals such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1971 anti war, anti Vietnam future standard, Happy Xmas (War Is Over). The Moodies left the Holst Midwinter tune alone which pretty much reflects Justin Hawyard’s love of and early influence by The English Hymnal. Well, you make up your mind.
We stay in Britain for a while longer to ponder the great and indomitable Dame Julie Andrews and her incredible body of work which has garnered for her every conceivable recognition including designation as one of the "100 Greatest Britons" sponsored by the BBC and selected by the public. Puts her in pretty good company that includes Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare, William Wilberforce, King Henry VIII and my personal favorites Sir William Wallace and Robert the Bruce though the latter would most assuredly prefer to be remembered as among the Greatest Scots. But, back to Julie - her holiday album, Christmas with Julie Andrews was originally recorded in 1963 (rereleased in 1982) before 1998 throat surgery took her voice from us. She has started to sing again of late but her range is limited. At that, it’s still better than most. Her Christmas album is considered by many critics to be “the best ever” with Julie’s vocals and the magnificent orchestral setting. Of note, it contains Midwinter (Julie’s favorite) and I think that just Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
We move across the North Sea to Norway and Sweden and find Anni Frid Lyngstad (Frida) of Abba fame and many popular hits including Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia. Though she is no longer actively pursing a career in music she has left a legacy of many hits and, yes, an abbreviated (one verse) recording of Midwinter in her live TV special with Jon Lord in 2004. Frida proves that she like the song is timeless. She brings her great voice and incredible good looks (still) back for all to ponder and appreciate.
It seems a lot of good things are coming out of China these days. First there was those giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, ping-pong players, bankers to the United States and now we have the incomparable Corrinne May (born Corrinne Foo May Ying in Singapore). Corrine may be the key to get Taiwan and mainland China back together – she’s that good and sings on a Taiwan label. One of her favorite singers is Sarah McLachlan and that’s reflected in her timber and presentation. A little breathy bit of Sarah Mclachlan and folk-flavored Carole King is in Corrinne though she remains her own very talented performer. Her interpretation of Midwinter is superb and perhaps one of the best of all time and believe it or not, happened at the local Peets Coffee & Tea, her favorite haunt in Tarzana, California. We hope that many get a chance to experience this extraordinary performer. You will want to listen and feel her Journey. As two recent reviewers stated, “Oh my, healing tears…” and “Her songs, her words, her music, her voice lifts, comforts and heals in infinite measure.”
No, we can’t leave out Canadian superstar Sarah McLachlan who has been such a positive influence in the music industry including her ongoing Lilith Fair tour, which starting in the late 1990s, showcases female musicians. Sarah believes in being involved and giving back totally, witness her many philanthropic activities which are well known beyond her home in Vancouver. Sarah is important to this piece not only because of her incredible talent, but also because she sings the Darke version of Midwinter – and incredibly so on her 2006 album, Wintersong. Amusingly and probably deliberately her title of Midwinter is “In a Bleak Midwinter” as opposed to "the". When you Google the two songs the only one that comes up "a" is McLachlan’s. Rosetti wrote the poem as “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Interesting as it’s either a gigantic screw up or a McLachlan gambit (probably the latter). Whatever the reason, no doubt that Sarah is an Angel.
Our Midwinter world tour takes us to New Zealand and then back to England for the performance of Midwinter by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Dame Kiri performed with incredible emotion and feeling with Michael George and the massed Choirs of Coventry and Lichfield Cathedrals in this superb 1994 UK concert. Dame Kiri is of Māori and European ancestry and raised in a Maori home. Her operatic career is legendary and her honors, “as lang’s me arm.”
Much to my dismay I had never heard of Danielle Vaughn before I started researching this post and that’s a loss for me. Now you know her and can appreciate her body of work including this amazing video of In the Bleak Midwinter from Danielle's 2009 CD Noel. The song is the star and focus of attention in this video devoid of all modern video manipulation save its mere existence. She is a classically trained pianist, singer and songwriter who appears to listen to the beat of her own drummer after benefitting mightily from a multi cultural, non traditional upbringing. They can’t hide Danielle’s soulful and solitary interpretation of Midwinter. Part of the inspiration has to be those Utah mountains around Huntsville. Well done…
Just when you thought that it couldn’t get any better, it does. We saved the best for last. We go back to Scandinavia and to my Norse Brethren. Sissel Kyrkjebø aka Sissel is the wonderful Norwegian soprano who contributed the haunting vocals for Titanic and sang the stirring Olympic Hymn for both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. While Enya, Annie Lennox and the awesome and incredibly attractive Emiliana Torrini (Gollum’s Song) contributed to Lord of the Rings, it was Sissel who was invited to go on the 2004 world tour as featured soloist for a full orchestral performance with choirs all dedicated to the music from the The Lord of the Rings films. As the featured soloist Sissel performed Midwinter with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on the occasion of their 2006 Christmas concert which was aired in December 2007 on PBS. In Norway this song is called I En Steingrå Vinter and can be found on Sissel`s 2009 CD Strålande Jul. We of the Kingdome of Räknar and The Might of Right are well pleased as the King of Norway Knighted Sissel into the Order of St. Olav (1847) in 2006 for her contributions to music and as an ambassador for Norway (the youngest ever recipient of this revered honor). Sissel may very well be the best soprano in the world today…
So, which version do you prefer and what artist nails it for you? As I ponder Christmas 2009 Midwinter brings me back to that true meaning of this holiday whether it be celebrated in summer, fall, spring or Winter. I’m thinking of Family and Friends and how blessed I am to be able to celebrate life with them all to the strains of this beautiful carol. One year ago today beloved step mother Ellen passed to her great reward and we do miss her. The Might of Right dedicates this post to Ellen who loved Midwinter. Last night we participated in the “Greening of St. Matthews Cathedral” here in Dallas. We contributed to yet another great tradition and readied our house for the Christ Child. We hope you have a Merry Christmas!