Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fighting With Holst

The English composer Gustav Holst is probably best known for his work The Planets, but one of his melodies is sung nearly every Christmas, the melody to 'In The Bleak Midwinter'. True, there is another famous setting by the English Composer Harold Darke, but it is not so well known.

This year I set the lyrics of 'In The Bleak Midwinter' - written by Christina Rossetti, to a new tune, composed by myself.

You can see and hear my setting here.

I did not receive much response from the choir last night over the piece.

Comparing my setting to the familiar Holst setting, my melody is more interesting. It uses some interesting rhythmic devices and changes time signature. Holst stays in 4 beats to the measure.

Harmonically, I have some interesting chord progressions and some mini-modulations. I even more the entire melody into the Major Key for one stanza. Holst has one solitary note that isn't in the basic scale of the key of his melody. His melody is 4 lines long, and two of those are practically identical.

In terms of text setting, my melody is in the minor key, and tries to feel bleak and sparse to conjure up musically the feeling of 'bleak midwinter'. When the choir sings about 'frosty wind made moan', the melodic phrases sets up a 'musical wind swirl'. Holst's melody seems at odds to most of the lyrics.

None of that matters.

The problem is, mine is not the familiar tune the choir is used too.

Singing lyrics to a new tune creates culture shock (just imagine if somebody did the unthinkable and set the lyrics of 'The Star Spangled Banner' to a new melody!)

It's like learning to drive on the other side of the road - it feels different, it feels wrong, and suddenly you have to concentrate on the act of driving.

By putting the lyrics to a new tune, I'm fighting against tradition. The new tune isn't a big deal to me, I know other settings of this carol beyond the three I've listed here. When I moved to the U.S. I discovered other Christmas Carols that are sung to different tunes than to the ones I grew up loving in the U.K. I've dealt with my culture shock.

I still remember though how weird it felt.

And now my melody is causing the choir to experience that 'weirdness' for themselves.

I've taken something that is beloved - and altered it!

For many people Christmas is a time of nostalgia and tradition. I have certain foods that I want to eat, and certain things I want to sing - If a candlelight service didn't end with singing 'Silent Night' whilst holding your candles aloft I think there would be uproar.

In the midst of that, I'm fighting with Holst. A fight that most people don't see as necessary. Why does 'In The Bleak Midwinter' need a new tune? It doesn't. But I wrote one simply because I could and I wanted to be creative.

As I said I did not receive much response from the choir over the piece. That lack of response has reminded me that I didn't compose the piece for the response it might get. Writing new tunes to Christmas Carols has become a Christmas tradition for me.

It's ok to let Holst win.

It's not a fight.

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