The History Behind the Christmas Carol Voted the Best by Choir Directors: 'In the Bleak Midwinter'

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One of the most beloved songs of the Christmas season, a favorite of choir directors, was written by a woman whose life was full of suffering.

"In the Bleak Midwinter" is considered by choirmasters as the world's greatest Christmas carol, noted Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior, writing in The Gospel Coalition Saturday. But the lyrics of this song were not set to music until 12 years after the death of the poet who penned them.

Born to Italian parents in England, poet Christina Rossetti is the author of "A Christmas Carol," which was later titled "In the Bleak Midwinter," and was first published in 1872 in Scribner's Monthly, an American journal. Rossetti grew up in a family that valued the arts, her father a scholar of Dante. Her two older brothers helped form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an arts community comprised of English painters, poets, and critics, which was founded in 1848.

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Prior noted in her essay that one of Rossetti's brothers famously said his sister was "replete with the spirit of self-postponement." Some critics of Rossetti have described her as a "nun of art."

"Schooled at home by her Anglican mother, Rossetti declined two offers of marriage due to doctrinal scruples and remained single her entire life. She devoted herself to her family and her faith, ministering to former prostitutes and working with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, as well as nurturing a vibrant inner life as a poet."

Rosetti wrote to her brothers in 1888: "Beautiful, delightful, noble, memorable, as is the world you and yours frequent, I yet am well content in my shady crevice—which crevice enjoys the unique advantage of being to my certain knowledge the place assigned me."

The poet suffered from Graves' disease, an autoimmune disorder affecting the thyroid. She contracted breast cancer in 1893 and got the tumor removed, but it recurred in September of the following year and she died at age 64 on Dec. 29, 1894.

"The paradox of Rossetti's life is that her 'spirit of self-postponement' produced some of the finest Christian poetry written—the gift of herself, given to her Savior and received by the world," Prior observed.

The most famous musical setting of her poem is composer Gustav Holst's, a popular version of which was recorded by The Choir of King's College at Cambridge University.

Holst's setting is best suited for congregational singing and it first appeared in the English Hymnal in 1906. The meter of the poem is irregular thus requiring an adaptable melodic line.

Another musical version of the poem, written in 1911 by composer Harold Darke, is much more complex musically and is favored by choral ensembles. When a choir sings it in its original form, a soprano soloist sings the first verse, a tenor sings the third verse, the fourth verse is omitted entirely, and the final line of the fifth verse is repeated to bring the song to its conclusion.

Author Janet Wooten notes in her 2013 book, This Is Our Song: Women's Hymn-Writing, that Erik Routley, an English Congregational minister, composer and musicologist, once dismissed one line in the third verse in Darke's arrangement as "slightly embarrassing." The line "A breastful of milk" — referring to the Virgin Mary nurturing baby Jesus — was altered to read "A heart full of mirth" and was commended for "general use." That alteration was later reversed.

According to BBC, in a 2008 poll of 51 music directors, Darke's version of the song was named the best Christmas carol.

To view the lyrics, click here.

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