Friday, December 05, 2008

Holiday Music #3 - Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

The cover article of BBC Music Magazine's December, 2008 issue is called "The 50 Greatest Carols, as Voted by the World's Finest Choirmasters." While only two of those choral experts who voted were women (a topic for another day, perhaps), I found myself agreeing by and large with the carols I recognized on the list. Especially intriguing to me was a sidebar written by Harry Christophers, the director of The Sixteen, which was devoted to "5 Ancient Carols," though many of the carols in the top fifty were also composed before 1600. Coming soon--a post on my experience listening to the tracks Christophers recommends. ☺

But today I want to touch on a favorite carol of mine, which was very high up on the BBC list, with text by Christina Rossetti and music by various composers: "In the Bleak Midwinter." I like Gustav Holst's version, which I remember hearing Julie Andrews singing when I was a tween (not that such a term existed way back then).

Even though Holst is well-known for his symphonic work, The Planets, the majority of his works were either choral or vocal, or written for the stage. Holst was largely passed over in my undergraduate music history classes, merely mentioned as a contemporary and friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams and, oh, yes, he wrote that "popular" piece, the one about the solar system or something. Even though I was a music performance major, and we were supposed to be above music that crowds adore, I secretly loved listening to bombastic "Jupiter" and whimsical "Mercury," not to mention vehement "Mars" when I was in a snit (who, me?). And then there was also Holst's other popular orchestral work, St. Paul's Suite, which had plenty of celtic-sounding folksong in it to charm me, too.

Egdon Heath, a tone poem inspired by Thomas Hardy's fictional populated heath, is considered by many to be the finest of Holst's compositions, though I must admit to unfamiliarity with the piece. Ah, well. My holiday wish list and my list of "music with which to acquaint myself" grow ever longer.

"In the Bleak Midwinter," with music by another composer, Harold Darke, is also much sung by choirs around the world. I like this one, too, but the Julie Andrews recording pushes the Holst one over the top for me.

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