At the rim of the Mournful Valley, singing

(About other things as well, but centrally about my life, which some readers might just find annoying and want to avoid.)

January 16th today. At the very rim of the Mournful Valley. From my 1/21/15 posting “Antonio Soler and the Mournful Valley”

Not long ago, WQXR [NYC FM radio station specializing in classical music] played some keyboard sonatas by Padre Antonio Soler, a favorite composer of mine since my student days at MIT but one not especially widely known. That tweaked bittersweet memories of those days in Cambridge MA, especially powerful at this time of the year, in what I’ve come to think of the Mournful Valley of Mid-Winter, in between January 17th, the anniversary of Ann Daingerfield Zwicky’s death ([in 2020, the 35th anniversary; she died at age 47]) and January 22nd, my man Jacques Transue’s birthday ([in 2020, his 78th]; Jacques died in 2003) — and with celebrations of love, for Valentines Day, very much in the air.

In the context of the Mournful Valley, VDay is definitely bittersweet. On the one hand, I’ve been alone since 1998, when J went into a dementia care facility. On the other hand, VDay is Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky’s birthday, and that makes the holiday a very big thing.

For discussion of Soler, see my earlier posting. But there’s more music, the theme song of the Mournful Valley: the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”.

After Ann died, we had a wake, and a memorial service that Ann herself had blocked out, with organ music of her own choice, including that Christmas carol and some New Orleans jazz funeral music. (She had some months to prepare for death, and used much of that time to smooth things for the rest of us and to say goodbye to family and old friends.)

(The music playing during her last moments was the Mendelssohn String Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, which still seems to me to be a work of extraordinary warmth and affirmation, a little miracle. See my 1/8/16 posting “Some favorite music”, about the Mendelssohn Octet and the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Handel.)

The night she died was fabulously cold, and then it got colder, so these funereal events did indeed unroll in the bleak mid-winter.

(Meanwhile, Jacques’s birthday was completely overshadowed that year by Ann’s death and its aftermath.)

The carol. From Wikipedia:

“In the Bleak Midwinter” is a Christmas carol based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti. The poem was published, under the title “A Christmas Carol”, in the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly.

The poem first appeared set to music in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Gustav Holst. [There have been a number of other settings since.]

The version in the (Episcopal)  Hymnbook 1982 (#112):

(#1) Verse 3 of 4 here (verse 4 of 5 in the Rossetti poem) has the angels and archangels; Ann and I were both partial to angels and archangels, especially Michael (for my part, see my 9/30/17 posting “The archangel Michael”)

The original verse 3, omitted from my hymnbook:

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.

You can see a very traditional performance of the Holst setting here (#2), by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge. Or enjoy two fine solo performances with guitar, by Dan Fogelberg from his 1999 The First Christmas Morning album (track #9) (#3); and by James Taylor, from his 2006 James Taylor at Christmas album (track #11) (#4).

Rossetti and Holst. As for the words, from Wikipedia:

Christina Georgina Rossetti (5 December 1830 – 29 December 1894) was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children’s poems. She is famous for “Goblin Market” and “Remember”. She wrote the words of two Christmas carols well known in the British Isles: “In the Bleak Midwinter”, later set to music by Gustav Holst and by Harold Darke, and “Love Came Down at Christmas”, also set by Harold Darke and by other composers.

(#5) Portrait of Rossetti by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

… Rossetti’s most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, appeared in 1862, when she was 31. It received widespread critical praise, establishing her as the foremost female poet of the time. Hopkins, Swinburne and Tennyson lauded her, and with the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861 she was hailed as her natural successor. The title poem is one of Rossetti’s best known. Although it is ostensibly about two sisters’ misadventures with goblins, critics have interpreted the piece in a variety of ways, seeing it as an allegory about temptation and salvation, a commentary on Victorian gender roles and female agency, and a work about erotic desire and social redemption [for some writers, mystic lesbianism].

As for the music, from Wikipedia:

Gustav Theodore Holst (born Gustavus Theodore von Holst; 21 September 1874 – 25 May 1934) was an English composer, arranger and teacher. Best known for his orchestral suite The Planets, he composed many other works across a range of genres, although none achieved comparable success. His distinctive compositional style was the product of many influences, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss being most crucial early in his development. The subsequent inspiration of the English folksong revival of the early 20th century, and the example of such rising modern composers as Maurice Ravel, led Holst to develop and refine an individual style.


One Response to “At the rim of the Mournful Valley, singing”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I have what I suspect is a unique, or nearly so, experience of the text of In the Bleak Midwinter: I never heard or sang this particular carol growing up, and I first encountered the text sometime in the late 1970s when the chorus I was in performed Benjamin Britten’s A Boy Was Born, which contains a movement in which women’s voices sing the first verse set in close dissonances with much overlapping (mostly as a background to a boys’ choir singing something else), and sounding very bleak indeed — a marvelous piece of word-painting. Later on, I got to know the Holst setting, with its very warm harmonies, which seemed to me a rather strange contrast.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: