Pristine snow, crystalline icicles, clear winter nights…it’s not surprising that there is such a wealth of music inspired by this season.  As a matter of fact, there is so much winter-themed music that it was difficult to choose what to play for the Winter Solstice service – a wonderful problem to have! The piano repertoire played today represented a wide range of genres and composers, beginning with “In the Bleak Midwinter”.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” began as a a poem published in an 1872 Scribner’s Monthly.  Although published in January, it eventually became known and loved as a Christmas carol when Gustav Holst (the same composer of the orchestral suite The Planets) set Christina Rosetti’s poem to music and now appears in hymnals of all Christian denominations of hymnals.

“In the Bleak Midwinter”, arr. Joseph Martin, performed by Nathan Beyreuther

Contemporary pianist Jim Brickman is known for his pop covers of well-known works, but also composes original songs and piano solos of his own; his “Winter Peace” became a staple of light pop and adult contemporary radio stations around the country in the late nineties. Simple, delicate, and not afraid of moments when the piano pauses and lets the notes suspend in the air, “Winter Peace” is one of my favorites to play at the UUFC every winter, and paired beautifully with “In the Bleak Midwinter” for this morning’s prelude music.

“Winter Peace”, composed and performed by Jim Brickman

Even those who aren’t fans of classical music recognize Vivaldi’s Le quattro stagioni (“The Four Seasons”), especially the famous first moment of “Spring”.

“Spring”, from “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi, performed by Itzhak Perlman and the Israel Philharmonic

The lesser known but equally beautiful Largo from “Winter” is evocative, bringing forth images of fresh powdery snow quietly falling and forming an untouched blanket on the earth.

“Winter” (Largo) from “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi, performed by Itzhak Perlman and the Isreal Philharmonic

“When I think of Tori Amos, I usually think of the angsty girl rock cassettes that I listened to during my teen years,  but she also has written heartfelt and lyrical songs that are ballades to pivotal relationships and memories in her life  “Winter” is one of these songs.

Snow can wait, I forgot my mittens
Wipe my nose, get my new boots on
I get a little warm in my heart when I think of winter
I put my hand in my father’s glove

I run off where the drifts get deeper
Sleeping beauty trips me with a frown
I hear a voice “You must learn to stand up for yourself”
“‘Cause I can’t always be around”

He says when you gonna make up your mind
When you gonna love you as much as I do
When you gonna make up your mind
‘Cause things are gonna change so fast
All the white horses are still in bed
I tell you that I’ll always want you near
You say that things change my dear

While we often associate this season with baking and lights and gifts, for some, these months can be the darkest time of the year emotionally. I love Tori Amos’s “Winter” for its winter-like starkness, for its bittersweet memories of those who re no longer with us, and for its reminder of worth and  inner strength.

“Winter Wonderland” is considered a Christmas song even though the holiday isn’t mentioned once in the lyrics.  It originated as a poem crafted by Pennsylvanian Richard Smith in the 1930s as he was being treated for tuberculosis. Confined to his bed during his recovery, he was inspired by the freshly fallen snow outside his window and wrote the poem “Winter Wonderland”. When he later showed his friend Felix Bernard his writing, Bernard – one of the many Jewish musicians who composed Christmas music* – set the words to music and created what the American Society of Composers and Performer’s (ASCAP) named in 2007 as the most-played ASCAP-member-written holiday song of the previous five years.

* Other Christmas songs written by Jewish composers: “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an Open Fire)”, “Silver Bells”, “Santa Baby”, “I’ll be Home for Christmas”, “Let it Snow”,