Tag Archives: Choral Music

A Christmas Potpourri

I’ve somehow largely been out of the mood for Christmas (not in a bad mood, just having trouble feeling like it’s Christmas), watching no Christmas movies, listening to very little Christmas music, and reading even less Christmas related material. It’s been odd. However, here three Christmasy things relating to music, literature, and cinema that are part of my December that I wanted to share.

Julie London and Christmas

Julie London did not have a very big voice. She said she had “only a thimbleful of a voice, and I have to use it close to the microphone. But it is a kind of over-smoked voice, and it automatically sounds intimate.” She manages to sound both sexy and classy.

My December has been rather warm, because I’m temporarily in California. Usually, my Christmas is damp and chilly (rather than snowy), but this year it is sunny and warm. In two songs, Julie London sings about a warm Christmas, but it’s not because of the sun.

“I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” – written by Irving Berlin in the 1937 film On the Avenue.

And “Warm December”

“I’d Like You For Christmas” was written by Julie London’s husband, Bobby Troup, who acted with Julie London in the TV series Emergency!

Relating to John Milton

I’ve been reading about John Milton, author of Paradise Lost. One random fact I learned in a biography about him – The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography by Barbara K. Lewalski – is that the phrase “Hobson’s Choice” derived from Thomas Hobson, who owned a livery stable and rented horse and carriages to the students at Cambridge (presumably including John Milton). He reportedly would force the students to rent whatever horse and carriage was closest to the door, thus the saying “Hobson’s choice,” which essentially means “no choice.” I mention it because I had never heard the phrase before and caused the title of David Lean’s film Hobson’s Choice to make much more sense. I had previously and rather ignorantly assumed it meant that he really had a choice to make.

But the one Christmas work I have consistently been listening to is Ralph Vaughan William’s “Hodie,” which is a cantata with music set to texts from the Bible and various English poems from authors like George Herbert, Thomas Hardy, and John Milton. The most moving song is “It Was the Winter Wild,” which is adapted from John Milton’s poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Listen how, at the end, the music hushes after the soprano sings about how “Birds of Calm” brood over the music so that it forgets “to rave.”

It was the Winter wilde,
While the Heav'n-born-childe,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in aw to him
Had doff't her gawdy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
And waving wide her mirtle wand,
She strikes a universall Peace through Sea and Land.

No War, or Battails sound
Was heard the World around:
The idle spear and shield were high up hung; 
The hooked Chariot stood
Unstain'd with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng,
And Kings sate still with awfull eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by. 

But peacefull was the night
Wherin the Prince of light
His raign of peace upon the earth began:
The Windes, with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist, [ 65 ]
Whispering new joyes to the milde Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

A New Christmas Movie

I have yet to see a single holiday film this December, but thanks to Ruth at Silver Screenings, I have a new Christmas film to watch tonight that I have never seen, or even heard of before. It is called The Holly and the Ivy, starring Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton. It looks to be delightful. For more information and a link to the film, please check out her post, here.

Have a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back before New Year with a look at the past year and some thoughts about the coming new year.


Posted by on December 23, 2017 in Books, Movies, Music


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In The Bleak Midwinter – Poem and Hymn


“Jordin sous la neige” or “Effect of Snow” by Paul Gauguin

It’s funny how you think that Christmas, for once, is going to be a perfectly relaxing affair and you plan to put your feet up, enjoy people and watch movies; and then it’s upon you and suddenly you have more to do than you were expecting. This seems to happen to me every year and every year I cherish the same delusion that this one will be the relaxing one. It’s a very comforting delusion. But since it always remains a delusion, I have decided to take a brief vacation from blogging and return on the 31st, in time to prepare for the new year. Before I take my vacation, however, I wanted write about one of my favorite poets and also one of my favorites Christmas carols: “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

I have always liked Christina Rossetti (I think partially because we share a first name, which is a superficial reason), because her poems always seemed especially poignant and evocative to me. I have a habit (not a very discerning one) of judging a poem by how well it makes me see or feel what it is describing. Christina Rossetti always comes out on top for me.

The poem was written in 1872 for the journal, Scribner’s Monthly. Most of the issues of the journal are available online and I set out to locate, if I could, the original issue of the poem. I was initially stymied, until I read somewhere that “In the Bleak Midwinter” was originally published under the less evocative and more generic title of “A Christmas Carol.” Then I was able to locate it instantly and the original printing of the poem in the journal, along with its accompanying illustration, can be viewed here.

Sam Leith, in The Telegraph, writes of the poem “The simplicity of her words and the rhythmic artfulness of her short lines make it one of the most haunting and intimate of all Christmas poems. The entrancing repetition – “Snow had fallen, / Snow on snow / Snow on snow” – conjures snowfall not so much by description as by imitation.” The song has always represented, for me, a wonderful juxtaposition of stillness, quiet and humility of setting with the glory and magnificence that is contained in the Lord.


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.

The words have become so wedded in my imagination with the arrangement by Gustav Holst that I cannot read the poem without hearing music inside. The melody was evidently inspired by his visits to Cranham, in Gloucestershire. When he was asked to set the poem to music for a new hymnal, there were woods in Cranham that in winter that reminded him of the poem. His arrangement was published in 1909 and remains, probably the most familiar setting of the poem.

There is, however, an alternate arrangement, by Harold Darke, published in 1911. It begins with a soloist and the melody varies with each verse. It is this version that is supposed to be the most well-thought of by choral masters and I have been a little surprised at the vehemence of some of the comments on youtube regarding which version is better. Some people take this debate quite personally. The arrangement by Holst, which was meant to be sung in church, is a little easier for a congregation to sing and the arrangement by Darke is more technically challenging and probably more fun for a choir to sing (technically challenging is always more fun to sing, quite regardless of whether it is more fun to listen to).

I still hear Holst’s version of the song when I read the poem, but both versions are beautiful. I’ve always thought that Christmas music really is at its best in choral arrangements and these two songs represent some of the most lovely settings of any text and provide a contemplative moment during the extreme Christmas busyness that we all have.

I hope you all have a wonderfully lovely Christmas!

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Posted by on December 22, 2014 in Music, Poetry


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