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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 the poem “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 — in candlelit near-darkness — by the choir and congregation of Gloucester Cathedral in Britain:
December is Holiday Music Month in the River Houses, and throughout the month we’re sharing an assortment of seasonal favorites in a great variety of styles and genres — classical and modern, sacred and secular, serious and silly — along with (of course) a collection of educational notes that will help you teach little homeschool lessons all along the way.
We post this carol today because today is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere — the official astronomical beginning of the season of winter. The solstice is the shortest day of the year, so it’s also traditionally called midwinter day: 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 for “In the Bleak Midwinter” has been arranged for many different combinations of singers and instruments. Here’s an appropriately frosty instrumental performance 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 marvelous musical discoveries will you be making in your homeschool during this Holiday Music Month? ❄️ 🎄 😊
❡ Musical memories: If you’d like to fill your homeschool with some beautiful background sounds this December, why not tune in to the 24-hour Holiday Channel from WQXR, the famous classical music station in New York City. “Enjoy the sounds of orchestras, choirs, brass ensembles and more as we celebrate the sacred and secular sounds of the season.” I have it on as background music almost all day. Won’t you join me? 📻 🎵 🎄
❡ Explore more: The Poetry Foundation’s website 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. 🖋
❡ Stay in the loop: This is one of our occasional posts on Homeschool Arts & Music. Add your name to our weekly mailing list (riverhouses.org/newsletter) and get great homeschool teaching ideas delivered right to your mailbox all through the year. 🗞