In the Bleak Midwinter

A few days ago, just after Solstice Eve, my onetime choir director, musician Elizabeth Hilliard, responded to the reintroduction of stern Covid-related restrictions with a lovely renditioning of “In the Bleak Midwinter”. I remembered singing that same version (Darke, 1911, though the Holst version is better known) but in the alto line, so I sang it along her Youtube clip, and promptly ran out of breath!

This carol is mentioned in Lucia’s War. Close to Christmas 1918 Lucia is in a café on the Strand, London, with Lilian when she hears a tenor she knows giving a recital on the street outside, surrounded by a gaggle of schoolboys. He is singing – I think, haven’t got the book to hand to check – the third verse of Christina Rosetti’s lyrics, which refers to the little baby Jesus being content with “a breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay”. This is very emotional for Lucia to hear and she goes into a trance.

This winter has not been an easy one, for me personally or for the country and world at large. The unrelenting cold and rain, and the endless restrictions, are telling on our spirits – just as wartime London in all its grimness tell on Lucia’s at the beginning of the book. It’s hard to see any joy or miracle. All I can say is – it’s not over till the last line.

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