The Story of “In The Bleak Midwinter”

in the bleak spp page 1This song is one of the most popular songs I’ve ever composed. It has been performed by children and adult choirs around the world on very many occasions. I am proud to have composed something that has reached so many people both physically and emotionally, even though it is completely unrepresentative of my usual vocal output! It is very simple rhythmically and melodically, there are no changes in time signature, it is essentially homophonic in texture, it has very little melismatic treatment of the text. One of my friends declared it to be the most moving piece I’ve ever written. Another friend who overheard this remark countered that this was nonsense considering the emotional and musical depth of some of my other pieces. Anyhow…popular it is and here’s its story:

Snow on field 1Following a request for “something simple about the winter that we can learn in one rehearsal,” I initially cobbled it together, one verse only about 20 years ago as a single line song with piano accompaniment for primary school children in Auckland, New Zealand. When I went to live in Dunedin, I added a descant and I used to warble it gleefully with my friends Carole and Tracey at the Dunedin College of Education. I added a 3rd part and arranged it for Otago Boys’ High School choir – in those days conducted by none other than Jonathan Lemalu. It was also performed at that time and in that version by the men from Southern Consort of Voices, under the direction of Jack Speirs.

Go to In The Bleak Midwinter for low voices

Its next reincarnation was in a transposition of this 3-part version for women’s choir and this I know has been performed many, many times. Oh so very many. When I first came over to England to live again, I was interviewed by someone from Radio New Zealand Concert because it was about to be performed by some choir or other in the Big Sing Finale, and I know from data in Matthew Leese’s excellent PhD thesis ( https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/31022/Leese_Matthew.pdf?sequence=1 ) that it has been performed at least five times in these national finales.

Go to In The Bleak Midwinter for high voices

I souped it up a bit next with all manner of syncopated rhythmic accompaniments, added a 4th part and did a fancy version for brass band and mixed choir – never performed, alas, due to rehearsal constraints of the ensembles who requested it. Also, I overheard a cornet player gruffly sneering, “It’s not like any ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ I know!” and perhaps this had something to do with the non-performance! Personally, I took that as a compliment, and later after a further performance of a different piece for brass band and choir the same cornet player told me that my music was lovely to play!

Go to In The Bleak Midwinter for mixed voices

SPP front coverHowever, the piano reduction of the brass band version with the SATB has been performed, and also an unaccompanied SATB version by the Alnwick and District Choral Society.

I next added a written out piano accompaniment, and added an optional descant and harmony part to the original song and included it in my collection “Sea Pie Parcel: 20 Enthusiastic Songs for Young Choirs or Classes”.

Go to In The Bleak Midwinter from Sea Pie Parcel

At the moment, of I know of three choirs (in Northumberland, Belgium and the USA) who are learning the piece for their 2013 festive recitals, and a photographer who is using one of the TBB recordings as the background music for a slide show of her frosty images. My, what a career it’s had thus far, but I would still love to hear the brass band and choir version played on actual brass instruments one day, so if you know a likely band, point them in my direction!

Go to In The Bleak Midwinter for SATB and Brass Band
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