In the Bleak Midwinter
"In the Bleak Midwinter" is a Christmas carol based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti written before 1872 in response to a request from the magazine Scribner's Monthly for a Christmas poem. It was published posthumously in Rossetti's Poetic Works in 1904.
The poem became a Christmas carol after it appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Gustav Holst.
- 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 / Thronged 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.
In verse one, Rossetti describes the physical circumstances of the Incarnation in Bethlehem. In verse two, Rossetti contrasts Christ's first and second coming. The third verse dwells on Christ's birth and describes the simple surroundings, in a humble stable and watched by beasts of burden. Rossetti achieves another contrast in the fourth verse, this time between the incorporeal angels attendant at Christ's birth with Mary's ability to render Jesus physical affection. This verse is omitted in the Harold Darke setting. The final verse shifts the description to a more introspective thought process. Darke repeats the last line in his setting.
Hymnologist and theologian Ian Bradley has questioned the poem's theology: "Is it right to say that heaven cannot hold God, nor the earth sustain, and what about heaven and earth fleeing away when he comes to reign?" However I Kings 8.27, in Solomon's prayer of dedication of the Temple, says: "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you." Regarding "heaven and earth fleeing away", many New Testament apocalyptic passages use such language, such as II Peter 3. 10-11: "The heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire... That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells."
Four verses arranged for congregational singing.
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Holst's setting, "Cranham", is a hymn tune setting suitable for congregational singing, since the poem is irregular in metre and any setting of it requires a skilful and adaptable tune. The hymn is titled after Cranham, Gloucestershire and was written for the English Hymnal of 1906.
The Darke setting, written in 1909 while he was a student at the Royal College of Music, is more advanced and each verse is treated slightly differently, with solos for soprano and tenor (or a group of sopranos and tenors) and a delicate organ accompaniment. This version is favoured by cathedral choirs, and is the one usually heard performed on the radio broadcasts of Nine Lessons and Carols by the King's College Choir. Darke served as conductor of the choir during World War II.
Benjamin Britten includes a setting for chorus in his work "A Boy Was Born". Other settings include those by Robert C L Watson, Bruce Montgomery, Bob Chilcott, Michael John Trotta, Robert Walker, Eric Thiman, who wrote a setting for solo voice and piano, and Leonard Lehrman.
- "In the Bleak Midwinter", Cyber Hymnal, Hymn Time.
- "Bleak Midwinter named best carol", News, UK: The BBC, 27 November 2008.
- Christiansen, Rupert (14 December 2007), "The story behind the carol: In the bleak midwinter", The Daily Telegraph, UK.
- The English Hymnal, Oxford University Press, 1916, p. 44.
- "Carols at Cranham", Shnugget, Gloucestershire, UK: The BBC.
- "In the Bleak Midwinter". Hymns and Carols of Christmas.
- "Michael John Trotta's setting", YouTube, Google.
- "Catalogue", Robert Walker.
- "The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Page", Rec Music.
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- In the Bleak Midwinter for SATB (sheet music), Cantorion (free).