In the Bleak Midwinter
Judging from the statistics on iTunes, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is one of the less played or purchased singles from David Archuleta’s new Christmas album, “Winter in the Air.”
Admittedly, it is not the song I select first either, but I am here to champion this underdog track because there is still so much to enjoy and appreciate in David’s flawless rendition.
At the very least, it is yet another testament to his artistry and his unmatched skill in singing a story that reaches both heart and mind. A spiritual sensitivity and pure vocal prowess, that’s what it is.
A little about the song.
The lyrics in this traditional Christmas carol are based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894).
Her poem was first published in 1872, and was titled, “A Christmas Carol.” In 1906, it was set to music by Gustav Holst for The English Hymnal. It has actually been set to music many times and in many ways, but the hymnal melody is the one used most often by vocal soloists.
The song has been recorded by an endless list of artists. Every performing musician must want this carol included in their Christmas repertoire. Among the versions on YouTube, there were expected renditions and a few surprises. A few: Julie Andrews, King’s College Choir, Sissel, Tine Thing Helseth (trumpet), James Taylor, Paul Cardall, Susan Boyle, The Tabernacle Choir, Dan Fogelberg, Sarah McLachlan, YoYo Ma, Annie Lennox, Frida (ABBA), Orla Fallon, Indigo Girls, Moody Blues… See what I mean?
Back to David’s interpretation.
The original poem, now called “In the Bleak Midwinter,” is easily found online. It has five stanzas, and I have never heard a vocal version where the poem is used in its entirety. Artists and arrangers seem to pick and choose which lines they want to use, and that is what David has done.
He eliminated two stanzas, moved a couplet to a different place, changed the word order in one line, changed the rhythm of one line (à la Sissel), and replaced a couple of words.
He made it his own with the sequence of the verses and the lines he chose to use. It would be interesting to know his thinking behind the decisions he made.
Here are the lyrics for David’s version, showing where he paused for musical interludes:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
Snow had fallen, snow, on snow, on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But only His mother in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped her beloved with a kiss.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
The production on this song is unusual and really interesting. It begins with chimes and a Gregorian-like undertone that supports the opening lyrics: bleak, windy, cold, etc. This creates the visual of a physical setting for me, maybe something from the time period of the poet. I could imagine David in an old and beautiful but cavernous cathedral, perhaps pondering what it must have been like on that wintry night when Christ was born.
When David begins to sing, there is a slight echoing of the music, which adds to the image of a large space where even the softest sounds reverberate. (You can almost picture the voluminous stained-glass windows.) David’s beautiful voice is calming and reverent but purposeful, if that is an apt description.
The first interlude has different chimes, more melody and more movement. There is obviously more story to be told. An accurate explanation of the interlude passage is difficult because it is a sound you feel, something between haunting and ethereal. It is not music for a sunny summer day, but it belongs.
Listen to how David’s tone gradually intensifies when he sings about the Savior’s birth, His crucifixion, and the anticipated Second Coming. His voice is accompanied by fewer chimes and more strings—less cold and more warmth. He finishes the stanza (with the couplet he moved) to remind us of the humbling circumstances with the bleak midwinter cold.
Another interlude follows, using the same chimes as the first, but it is longer, building toward the announcement of the birth, and then it stops. David begins a cappella to tell us about the sacred scene at the manger. There is very little accompaniment thereafter and his vocal interpretation is beyond perfect. I hear awe and reverence and love. So good!
David sings the last stanza in the same worshipful manner. His voice lingers on the final mention of Jesus Christ as the song ends. I am completely blessed by this. Amen.