It’s rare for a poem written by one author to be successfully set to music at a later date by an unrelated composer, but that was happily the case with our homeschool poem-of-the-week for the third week of December, “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Christina Rossetti (1830–1894), beautifully converted into one of the most lovely religious carols of the season by English composer Gustav Holst (1874–1934). Here it is performed by the choir and congregation of Gloucester Cathedral:
Tomorrow is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere — the official astronomical beginning of the season of winter. But because the solstice is the shortest day of the year, it’s also traditionally called “midwinter”: the day of the least light and the greatest darkness. (Send your students to your family dictionary to confirm this special meaning.) In your homeschool this midwinter week, why not spend a few minutes introducing your students to Rossetti’s poem, which tells the Christian Nativity story, and to Holst’s magnificent musical setting.
Holst’s music has been arranged for many different combinations of singers and instruments. Here’s an appropriately frosty instrumental performance of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Norwegian trumpet virtuosa Tine Thing Helseth (pronounced Tina Ting Helsett) and her accompanists Elise Båtnes on violin and Birgitte Volan Håvik on harp:
See if you can follow along in Rossetti’s text and figure out how to sing it with that musical accompaniment:
In the Bleak Midwinter
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,
A 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.
What musico-literary traditions will you be observing in your homeschool this week? 😊
❡ Explore more: The Poetry Foundation’s website (poetryfoundation.org) includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including Christina Rossetti) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers.
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Print your own River Houses poetry calendar for the whole year at riverhouses.org/calendars and follow along with us as we visit forty-eight of our favorite friends.