Winter Songs & Carols: Two Unique Quartets

When Manitou Winds performs its first-ever concert on December 5, 2015, it will be an evening of several premieres. Two of the pieces on the program, in particular, are quartets which were specially arranged for our concert.

The first and probably most familiar of the tunes is In the Bleak Midwinter by Gustav Holst (1874-1934). HolstHistorians believe it was composed in 1904 or 1905; one of three hymns Holst composed at the request of Ralph Vaughan Williams, musical editor of the English Hymnal (published in 1906). The original manuscript was lost, unfortunately, but correspondence between Holst and Vaughn Williams gives us a reasonable timeline.

The lyrics Holst was asked to set to music were written quite a bit earlier by the English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). Rossetti initially wrote the poem in 1872 for publication in an American magazine (Scribner’s Monthly), but sadly it remained unpublished until 1904, some ten years after her death.

    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
    Throng’d the air,
    But only His mother,
    In her maiden bliss
    Worshiped 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.

Christina RosettiHolst’s compositional prowess was put to the test since the poem’s lines are very much irregular, not easily yielding to predictable meter. Magnificently, however, Holst’s melody manages to smooth over those rough places, adding poignancy to the text.

The hymn, now published in many Christian hymnals around the world, is regarded as one of the most evocative and yet introspective hymns about the Nativity. More than a mere retelling of the story of the Nativity, the text transports the manger to a snowy landscape, beckoning singer and listener to visit and ponder the scene rather being a mere spectator.

In taking on this beloved carol for Manitou Winds, I sought to capture the essence of both Holst’s melody and Rossetti’s text even though no one would be singing. Accordingly, I chose what is arguably a very non-traditional quartet of instruments. To begin, I selected what I believe to be the warmest trio from within wind quintet (oboe, clarinet, & bassoon). Then, I knew a guitar’s gentle meandering would add an unmistakable sentimental quality befitting the last stanza in particular (my personal favorite). Adding a stringed instrument to the mix also assured the wind musicians would have ample chance to breathe!

Moving from Britain to Scotland, the other quartet on December’s program is a never-before-transcribed work by the late fiddler Johnny Cunningham (1957-2003). King Holly, King Johnny CunninghamOak was recorded in 1995 for the Windham Hill Sampler “Celtic Christmas” as a quartet for fiddle, oboe, harp, and double bass. I always cherished the tune and futilely sought pre-existing arrangements of the piece. As best I can tell, nothing about the piece was ever committed to paper in published form. It exists solely as a recording. Seeing as how our program is in exploration of the many facets of winter, I knew the piece — especially its association with Celtic mythology — would fit right in.

The infinite battle between darkness and light, cold and warmth, winter and summer, is a common thread in both Celtic folklore and ancient Celtic religion. Even modern, Neopagan religions have adopted these elements in some form. King Holly and King Oak are mythological figures who each represent one half of the year. King Holly represents the dark half of the year (we might say autumn and winter) while King Oak represents the bright half of the year (spring and summer).

The kings continually battle one another throughout the year. While neither is more virtuous than the other (i.e., good vs. evil), neither is ever fully victorious. The Oak King is his strongest at Midsummer while the Holly King is his strongest at Midwinter. According to the mythology, neither king could truly exist without the other; they are essentially two parts of a whole.

oak king holly kingCunningham composed a beautiful melody to represent each king. King Holly (often described as a fore-runner to the modern day Santa Claus — both in wardrobe and in demeanor) is represented by the almost chant-like melody in harp over the double bass. King Oak (often portrayed as a fertility god — a giant, green lord of the forest) is given a lush, almost pastoral-like presence on the oboe accompanied by the rest of the ensemble. Through Cunningham’s juxtaposition of these two melodies, the listener can envision not only winter and summer, but also the beautiful transitions — the rise and fall from power — each season brings to nature via the winning and losing of the kings’ battles.

For my arrangement, I wanted to stay as true to Cunningham’s original as possible while still working within Manitou Winds’ instrumentation possibilities. I assigned the fiddle’s lyrical and soaring lines to the flute. I gave the oboe’s role to the clarinet. I took some liberties in order to work the double bass’ haunting presence into a part for bassoon (which obviously has an entirely different range and musical character). Lastly, the harp part on the recording was largely improvised, so I made an effort to keep the character of the original harpist’s performance while adding some accompaniment in the absence of the double bass.

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We hope both of these quartets will present for our audience alternating views of winter’s character: Rosetti’s image of the miraculous Nativity set in the darkest, coldest part of the year and Cunningham’s portrayal of the never-ending battle between winter and summer.

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