Soundtrack Of A Photograph, The Christmas Editions, Part 17

Song- In The Bleak Midwinter

Artist- The Albion Christmas Band

There are two disclaimers I think I should put forward regarding today’s song, In The Bleak Midwinter. First is that today where I live the weather is not bleak, nor is it midwinter (technically of course it isn’t even winter yet) but rather sunny, and unseasonably mild. I did not even have my hat and gloves on this morning. Not that I am complaining. The second is that In The Bleak Midwinter somehow was never a part of my own Christmas landscape until just a few years ago. Either I heard it and never thought much of it and skipped it whenever it came on, or I just ignored it completely. But I am making up for lost time now, and in my Christmas CD collection, I now have several versions of it-an orchestral version by Gustav Holst, as well as versions by The Blind Boys Of Alabama and the Indigo Girls. They are all terrific versions, and the reason the song is known at all is because of Gustav Holst, but for the version here, I am using a new live studio rendition by the Albion Christmas Band, who I used for the first Christmas Soundtrack Of A Photograph 16 days ago (but what feels like months now at this point!).

It is one of those songs that draws you in right from the start and I think that must be because the title is sung as the opening line. It sets the mood of the piece and I have always been attracted to songs that start off in this way. In The Bleak Midwinter was written in the 1870’s by the poet Christina Rossetti but did not really gather steam until Gustav Holst adapted it into a carol in 1906 writing a beautiful tune called ‘Cranham,’ named after a village in Gloucestershire he lived in at that time. Mention should also be made here of an alternate choral version by Harold Darke, though the Holst tune is definitely more widespread. It may also be one of the most analyzed songs in all of the Christmas canon, and there are numerous articles and blogs written about it that I came across discussing it in great detail.  Of course the reason for the analysis is the spiritual and religious side of Rossetti’s poem. Setting that aside however, the reason I have made amends and come round to this song in particular is in the opening stanza. I can think of few writers who captured the essence of winter the way Rossetti does. It bears quoting from here in fact-

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.

 These lines always speak to the essence of winter for me. Hard and icy ground, bitterly cold winds, unrelenting snow falling, and dark and dreary days. I have written about the flip side of all of that too of course with cheerier songs of this time of year like ‘Winter Wonderland’ and all the memories of winter fun, but in reality, In The Bleak Midwinter speaks a greater truth as to what winter is really all about. Well, it does for me anyway and whenever I hear it, scenes like this come to mind.

Despite that dreariness, a good song, even one as melancholy as In The Bleak Midwinter  becomes beautiful when sung in the right hands. Though I love all the versions I already mentioned, this bare bones, stripped down version by The Albion Christmas Band has brought these thoughts together for me. Kellie While is the singer here, with Simon Nicol (one of my favorite guitarists) providing stately playing. Like all the music I have written about in these blogs, they have been on heavy rotation these last few weeks. As I was playing this particular version it finally hit me how much this song is now firmly in place as one of my favorite Christmas songs. It may have only taken 46 years for it to get there, but better late than never!

In The Bleak Midwinter- Words by Christina Rossetti, Music by Gustav Holst

All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via for details.

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