Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In the Bleak Midwinter

I've had a troubled relationship with Britten since a lighting boom fell on my head during an amateur performance of Noah's Flood in the local Catholic church when I was nine. Then my mother made me sit through Nicholas Hytner's student lunchtime production of Curlew River in Trinity Hall College Cambridge, when I was a sulky teenager. I know, my philistine roots are showing… Yet I always liked "In the Bleak Midwinter".

The traditional setting you all recognize is to Gustav Holst's melody Cranham, named after the village he lived in. I loved Holst's The Planets Suite as a child - its simplicity fitted perfectly with my pleasure in bed-time reading on science and cosmology. It was a musical New Scientist-of-the-1970s matter of categorisation. Simples! Also, his daughter was the only other Imogen I'd ever heard of.

But to my surprise, the Britten setting, once I had tracked it down, was not the one I expected. After years of re-education by Paul, I am pleased to report I am finally developing a slightly more complex choral taste. If the weather would allow me to garden, I'd be listening to this pure version of Britten's Ceremony of Carols by The Sixteen.

The Daily Telegraph revealed the full state of my ignorance about my favourite carol. The tune I love is in fact by Harold Darke, written in 1911 when he was still a student at the Royal College of Music. I like the Britten, but it obscures the words, and isn't accessible to amateur singing, a pre-requisite for complete carolling.

I found the full lyrics ('before 1872') by Christina Rosetti on WikiSource. I notice that the verse about "a breast full of milk" is not often performed these days, replaced by a quick one-two-final verse edit.

BBC Music Magazine's 2008 poll voted Darke's version favourite of choirmasters and choral directors (n=51) . It's part of my growing-up in Cambridge. Queuing for hours in the cold to attend the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in Kings, entertained by students waltzing in the snow, nearly falling asleep when we finally made it into the warmth of the chapel for the magic evening-gloom and silence, pierced by that year-turning moment of candle and choir. Stop what you're doing for a moment and listen to Darke's setting of In the Bleak Midwinter.

What's your favorite carol?

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