I’m not sure when I first heard “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I thought it might have been when I sang with the Saint Mary’s College Chamber Singers when I was in college at Notre Dame, but maybe not. The Wisconsin Master Chorale, of which I was a member for 12-plus years, certainly sang it in 2002, but I think I already knew the song by then. It’s such a gorgeous song that it’s hard to believe that it’s never been my Christmas Song of the Day until today, December 8.
The words were written by English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), probably in 1871. Rossetti, who was well-known in her time, received a request from American-based periodical Scribner’s Monthly for a Christmas poem, which it published under the name “A Christmas Carol” in its January 1872 edition, as shown below.
That was its only appearance in print until the posthumous publication of her collected works in 1904. Two years later, composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) set Rossetti’s verse to music, and that is the most familiar version to Americans today, assuming they know the song at all.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” is popular as a church hymn and as a choir number. In 2006, Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees recorded a version on his sadly neglected album My Favourite Carols. (It came out so close to Christmas that most reviews of new holiday music that year missed that CD entirely.) That is the version I wish to share with you today.