In the Bleak Midwinter
Discover the final carol in our 2015 advent calendar.
Words: Christina Rossetti
Music: Harold Darke
Does any other carol get to the very heart of Christmas as understatedly but effectively as In The Bleak Midwinter? Christina Rossetti’s poem of 1872 is nigh-on perfect as a carol text: there’s the winter cold, the coming of Christ, the description of the nativity scene and, finally, that ‘What shall I give him?’ moment of self-reflection. And then there’s the music. While Gustav Holst’s charming setting of 1909 is rightly loved by millions worldwide, it is the less well known but infinitely more stylish setting by Harold Darke from two years later that convincingly won the day in our poll. Rhythmically, Darke’s opening line is identical to Holst’s, but whereas Holst uses the full choir, Darke, who was briefly organist at King’s College, Cambridge, scores the first verse for solo treble over the most muted of organ accompaniments. The remaining three verses are sung by the full choir, tenor solo, and choir again until, after a final, tender ‘Give my heart’, the organ brings the carol to a sublimely hushed conclusion. ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’s text and music flirt with sentimentality without crossing the line,’ reflects Jeffrey Smith, director of music at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. ‘And I love the delicious irony – and global connection – of singing “Snow had fallen, snow on snow” in our California sunshine, or for that matter, imagining a snowy Bethlehem long, long ago.’