Its title does not really conjure up Christmas cheer, but In the Bleak Midwinter is one of my favorite carols. I heard its melody repeatedly over the holidays and made a mental note to look into it a bit. And now that we are in the post-Christmas bleak not-quite-midwinter it seems like an appropriate time to do that. Surprisingly it is a creation of the Victorian era and after: I thought it was much older. Two early nineteenth-century composers set Christina Rossetti’s 1872 poem (first published in Scribner’s magazine) to music, creating an almost-instant classic: 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.
While the rest of Rossetti’s poem is Christocentric, this opening stanza, setting the scene, is universal. Combined with the melodies of Gustav Holst and Harold Darke, the song seems ageless, which is why I thought it was older than it actually is. Darke’s version (a nice version of which is here) won “best Christmas Carol” in a poll of the world’s leading choirmasters in 2008. Besides the beautiful melodies assigned to Rossetti’s words, I’m interested in the use of the word “bleak” here: usually this term connotes a definite pessimism, despair, even hopelessness; but I think the combination of words and music creates a feeling of comfort and hopefulness, to get everyone through the bleak midwinter. My own understanding of bleakness comes more from images than sounds, and I think midwinter can be beautiful, both as a barren landscape and as a setting for all the little details within.
Favorite midwinter images, not so “bleak”: the Pickering House, Salem, c. 1900 from a private family collection; Boston Common, c. 1904, E. Chickering & Co., Library of Congress, Howard Pyle, “A Wolf Had not Been Seen in Salem for Thirty Years”, illustration for his 1909 Harper’s Monthly story, “The Salem Wolf”, Delaware Art Museum; Anonymous American painting, 19th century, Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Kate Greenaway wall tile for Burslem, c. 1881-1885, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.