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“In the Bleak Midwinter” is the greatest carol of all time! Or, that’s what choir directors and choral experts across the U.S. and the U.K. told BBC Magazine in the 2008 poll that earned it this fame.
This haunting carol is born out of a poem written by an English poet in 1872 for a U.S. literary journal, Scribner’s Monthly, unimaginatively titled: “A Christmas carol.” But, it would take more than three decades for this mystery poet’s words to find a tune. So, intriguing is the pre-Raphaelite figure who penned these words, that you will need to listen to the episode if you want to find out the identity of our mystery poet.
But it was Gustav Holst, the world-renowned composer of the orchestral suite “The Planets”, who first set the text to music. His best-friend, Vaughan Williams, another renowned composer had asked him to write a Christmas carol for a new English hymnal that he had been asked to compile. It is out of this that the carol most people sing today comes to be.
But it is not Holst’s tune that was voted the most-beloved carol of choristers. That singular honor belongs to Harold Darke, who in 1909 set the words to his own tune. And, indeed, when you hear Darke’s magical composition, weaving vocal parts in and out seamlessly and creating a Christmasssy soundscape that will bring your jaw from the pew to the cathedral floor, you’ll understand why it has mesmerized music experts and enthusiasts alike.
And on this episode, two British experts pull apart the music and verse with Ricardo da Silva, S.J, our guest host and series producer along with Maggi Van Dorn. First, we invite back Christopher Walker, a church composer known for his “Celtic Alleluia,” to tackle the tune. Then, the Rev. Rachel Mann, an Anglican priest, poet, writer and one-time music journalist with expert knowledge of our mystery poet, guides us, verse by verse, through this nostalgia-inducing carol, and reveals the identity of its author.
Special thanks to the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Christopher Walker and Greg Shockmann, Garreth Brooke, Sharlene Wallace and Greg Koller, The Ignatian Schola, Debra Buesking, Wayne Bennett and Gate City Brass, Cynthia Boener and Salt of the Sound, for providing much of the music on this episode.
Our featured version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” at the end of this episode is performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge under the direction of Daniel Hyde. This recording is available on their latest album, “In the Bleak Midwinter: Christmas Carols from Kings”.
You can preorder a high definition recording of this year’s Carols by Candlelight celebration which was pre-recorded at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge and will be broadcast on the BBC this Christmas Eve.
Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey.
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