In The Bleak Mid-Winter

December 2nd, 2015

Published posthumously in 1904, ten years after the death of Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), the poem In the Bleak Mid-Winter would two years later become a plaintive and haunting Christmas carol. Written by Rossetti sometime before 1872, it was not intended as a carol or hymn, but as a Christmas poem at the behest of Scribner’s Monthly, an American literary magazine.

Rossetti was one of the few hymn writers of her day who garnered a reputation as a poet. She was highly supported by an educated and artistic family. Her father came to England as an Italian patriot and refugee who would become a professor at King’s College in London. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), was also a poet although he earned greater distinction as a Pre-Raphaelite artist. Possessed of exceptional beauty, Christina often posed as a model for her brother (and other contemporary artists), such as in his unique interpretation of the biblical Annunciation scene with Ecce Ancilla Domini. Sadly she was also known to have suffered her own pain and disappointment, some of which registered as somber verse in the manner of Emily Dickinson, the reclusive American poet.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934), a long-time friend of the celebrated Ralph Vaughan Williams, had a keen interest in Rossetti’s works. Best-known for his classical pieces, notably his orchestral masterpiece The Planets, Holst elevates In the Bleak Mid-Winter with a hymn-like musical setting that was published in the 1906 English Hymnal. Another popular setting for Rossetti’s contemplative poem was produced in 1909 by the English composer, Harold Edwin Darke (1888-1976), while he was a student at the Royal College of Music. His version has been favored by cathedral choirs over the years and it is often featured as part of the Nine Lessons and Carols, the annual Christmas radio broadcast by the King’s College Choir of Cambridge.

Despite England’s long tradition of producing and publishing exceptional carols, In the Bleak Midwinter was voted the greatest Christmas carol of all time in a 2008 poll of English choral experts and choirmasters. This is not at all surprising if your tastes prefer superb Christmas choral singing. Listen closely to the plaintive tune and imagine the gripping scene first depicted in Rossetti’s poem: snow falling on a bitterly cold night, the bleakness of winter, the meager environment attended by a loving and attentive mother in the presence of heavenly angels, stable animals, and lastly a lonely poet humbly offering her heart, her most precious of gifts, to the new-born child Jesus.

Ecce Ancilla Domini - Christina Rossetti posed as the Virgin Mary for this ANNUNCIATION painting by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ecce Ancilla Domini – Christina Rossetti posed as the Virgin Mary for this 1850 Annunciation work by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti


December 18th, 2014

Dick Clark, the late popular radio and television personality, had high praise for  AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CLASSICS.  An iconic figure who helped to pioneer the rock ‘n roll era with his popular American Bandstand, Mr. Clark was a gentleman of the highest order. I came to appreciate this quality about him after I had approached him in 2002 about promoting my newest Christmas music boxed collectionMr. Clark was so impressed by this unique collection of American Christmas songs, which he described as “most impressive,” that he considered buying my company, Christmas Classics Ltd. This was especially true after he had learned Christmas Classics Ltd. had gotten the necessary 172 copyright clearances to produce and published the richly illustrated collection. They included 47 Christmas songs and carols lyrics, three CDs, and 91 images including five Norman Rockwell color plates. Eventually Mr. Clark reluctantly decided not to purchase Christmas Classics Ltd. In an e-mail he wrote, “I always felt your material had great promise,” but because of a busy business schedule he would not have the time to devote to the enterprise. Regardless of the fact we could not work together to promote AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CLASSICS, I think of Dick Clark each Christmas season, ever thankful for his praise of my unique American Christmas songs and carols collection. But more importantly I remember him for being a gracious and kind person to me, a newcomer to the music and publishing trade. Over the years his positive assessment of AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CLASSICS has proven to be true, one that has been echoed by newspapers, media, and customers alike.

Dick Clark

Dick Clark

Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: James Kimball Gannon

November 18th, 2013

On this day in 1900, James Kimball Gannon was born in Brooklyn, New York. Better known as Kim Gannon, he was an American songwriter and lyricist for the perennial Christmas favorite I’ll Be Home for Christmas.

Gannon attended St. Lawrence University and as a senior wrote the school’s alma mater song The Scarlet and the Brown. A proud graduate of St. Lawrence in 1924, he had every intention of becoming a lawyer. The Great Depression delayed that career pursuit and in 1930 he was working as a salesman for a utility company. By 1934 he passed the New York state bar examination, but five years later the songwriting bug struck and soon after he composed his first commercial song, For Tonight.

The year 1942 found Gannon writing songs during the “swing era” and for films including the lyrics of the film title song Always in My Heart that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Song. He replicated that achievement  twice more: 1) Too Much In Love for the film Song of the Open Road in 1944,  and 2) Endlessly in 1945 for the film Earl Carroll Vanities. But in between he collaborated with Walter Kent in 1943 to produce I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Gannon also wrote songs for the films Powers Girl and If Winter Comes before Broadway beckoned in 1951 when he teamed up with Walter Kent again on the score for Seventeen.

Despite his success with film and Broadway, Gannon is best remembered for his popular and wistful Christmas lyric I’ll Be Home for Christmas. First recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943, it has since been recorded more than three hundred times and is an important part of American Christmas Classics.

The amiable Kim Gannon, who died in 1974, was always true to his alma mater. In his will he stipulated that after his wife Norma’s passing (she died in 2006), 30% of all royalty proceeds from his songs were to go to St. Lawrence University. The majority of those royalties, you can bet, come from his 39-word holiday classic I’ll Be Home for Christmas.

Kim Gannon

Kim Gannon

Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: Mel Tormé

September 13th, 2013

On this day in 1925, Melvin Howard Torma, better known as Mel Tormé, was born in Chicago to a Russian Jewish family. He was an accomplished and well-liked jazz composer, scat singer, author, and actor for television and movies. In Christmas music circles he is best known as co-author, along with Robert Wells, of The Christmas Song (a.k.a. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).

During the World War II years Tormé moved to California, enlisted in the Army, and started his own quintet Mel Tormé & the Mel-Tones. B y 1947 he decided to strike out on his own and then went on to develop a reputation as a cool jazz singer. He did not disappoint in 1948 with Careless Arms, a number one hit. In all “The Velvet Fog” a sobriquet Tormé detested, is credited with 250 songs and the arranger for a host of songs he sang for several recording companies, including Decca and Capitol Records. For a time in the 1960s he was the principal song writer and music arranger for The Judy Garland Show and by the 1970s with the resurgence of jazz singing his career was revitalized and from that time forward he remained a presence in the jazz world until his death.

How Tormé became associated with one of the most popular Christmas songs for the past seven decades is one for the books. During a terrific heat wave besieging Los Angeles in July of 1945, the songwriter Robert Wells sat at his piano and tried to find solace from the heat by jotting down several lines of lyrics with wintry themes. “It was so damn hot, I thought I’d write something to cool myself off,” he once said. All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.” While in this mood, his good friend Mel Tormé paid a visit. When Tormé noticed the notes Wells had put to paper, he suggested to him that they just might have the beginnings of a Christmas song.

Within twenty or forty-five minutes, depending upon who’s telling the story, the two songsters produced The Christmas Song. Tormé then went to the home of Nat King Cole and convinced him to record the song, and in the Spring of 1946 Nat went into a New York recording studio with a simple piano version of the song. The initial results weren’t satisfactory, and at the urging of his wife Maria and manager, the mellifluous singer responded with a more highly regarded version with strings and full orchestra. It was Cole’s exquisite recording that popularized the song, and over the years The Christmas Song has consistently ranked as one of America’s seasonal favorites.

Considered an historic recording, the song was honored in 1999, as was Tormé himself for life time achievement, by being inducted by the Grammy Awards organization into its Hall of Fame.

The Christmas Song has truly stood the test of time. This is quite understandable because it was written during an age when composers like Tormé produced music marked by grace and charm. In retrospect it is easily understood why his passing was mourned by many, especially by those nostalgic for such memorable musings from Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” . . . to . . .And so I’m offering this simple phrase, To kids from one to ninety-two; Although it’s been said many times, many ways, “Merry Christmas to you.”

Mel Tormé

Mel Tormé


Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: William Chatterton Dix

September 9th, 2013

On this day in 1898, William Chatterton Dix died in Cheddar, Somerset, England. He was bequeathed the middle name of Chatterton in honor of Thomas Chatterton, a poet whose biography was penned by Dix’s father. For a better part of his professional life Dix was a marine insurance agency manager, yet he is best known as the Christmas carol composer of the English carols What Child Is This? and As with Gladness Men of Old.

The insurance executive always nurtured a great love for poetry and hymns. His interest in both was accentuated at the age of twenty-nine when a near fatal illness and severe depression confined him to bed for months. It was also during this period when Dix wrote most of the forty hymns credited to him, including his most popular carol What Child Is This?

The lyrics for What Child Is This? were initially part of a six-stanza poem titled The Manger Throne. Dix later took three of the poem’s stanzas and adapted them to the popular 16th-century tune of Greensleeves. In 1871 both text and tune, the latter arranged by John Stainer, were published in Bramley & Stainer’s Christmas Carols, New and Old, a widely circulated compilation.

The beautiful folk melody of Greensleeves dates from Elizabethan times, perhaps even earlier, and reputedly it had less respectable lyrics sung to it in several lyrical settings. One of the earliest references to it was in 1580, and it was twice mentioned in Shakespeare’s comedy play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. In the 1642 New Christmas Carols black-letter edition, a variant tune of Greensleeves was used in the carol The Old Year Now Away Is Fled. Strains of the melody were also heard in John Gay’s 1728 satirical ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera.

The providence of history is such that Greensleeves might be much lesser known if not for a strange illness that befell William Chatterton Dix. His effort to string religious pearls from his lengthy The Manger Throne, and the sometimes less respectable Greensleeves tune, ultimately prove successful with the issuance of What Child Is This? Since its 1871 publication, the beloved carol has been sustained by repeated publication and acclaim for its reverential treatment of the Nativity theme.

William Chatterton Dix

William Chatterton Dix




Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: George K. Evans

August 26th, 2013

On this day in 1917, George K. Evans was born in Arkansas. He is most noted as a translator and co-author of the highly respected The International Book of Christmas Carols published by Prentice-Hall in 1963 and reprinted in 1980 by S. Greene Press.

Evans was responsible, along with colleague Walter Ehret, for including in The International Book of Christmas Carols many carols theretofore never published in English collections, especially Slavic, Scandinavian, and Spanish carols. Evans himself provided the notes and translations for most of the carols, as well as for the popular German carol O Tannenbaum. In addition he wrote a fine seven page introduction to the book.

Fifteen years ago I spoke with the retired co-author about The International Book of Christmas Carols. He was quite proud of his contributions, and rightfully so I told him, but expressed disappointment that the book wasn’t more aggressively marketed. When I hinted that most carol books generally do not have large print runs, Evans ever the gentleman concurred. When I further commented that I thought his oeuvre d’ hors was one of the finest 20th century carol collections, he was greatly pleased for the attention.

George K. Evans died at his home in North Hollywood, California in 2003. He will always be remembered and honored here as a significant contributor to the international Christmas music repertoire.

The International Book of Christmas Carols

The International Book
of Christmas Carols

Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins

August 5th, 2013

Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins was born on this day in 1838. He was an Episcopal minister who graduated from the General Theological Seminary, New York City.  He is known for producing a number of books and hymnals for the Episcopalian Church, including his largest volume Carols Old and Carols New: For Use at Christmas and Other Seasons of the Christian Year (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916). The massive collection contained 751 carols, about 470 dedicated to Christmas, and it remains one of the largest ever printed in the English language. The carols were international in scope, mostly from Europe and the United States, and included both favorite and lesser known carols.

Carols Old and Carols New: For Use at Christmas and Other Seasons of the Christian Year had a limited printing of a thousand copies, but it contained unusual features for its day, such as a preface, a composer and music source index, a first-line index, and some information about the authorship of carols.

Rev. Hutchins died on August 17, 1920 in Concord, Massachusetts. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a famous last resting place for some of New England’s great 19th century authors and transcendental poets, as well as Katherine K. Davis, the composer of the popular carol The Little Drummer Boy.

Charles L. Hutchins

Charles L. Hutchins

Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: Guillaume Dufay

August 5th, 2013

On this day in 1397 Guillaume Dufay was born. An important Franco-Flemish composer, he was instrumental in the transition from Medieval to Renaissance music. His reputation grew during his years in Italy when he earned the sobriquet as “the greatest ornament of our age.” He was also a Catholic priest who served the choir of the Papal Chapel in Rome from 1428 to 1443. It is understandable then why much of his musical output was devoted to church liturgy, including polyphonic works for Masses. motets, and hymns, some of which were dedicated to Advent and Christmas.

Dufay’s reputation asone of the most influential composers of the 15th century was well earned, evidence of which can be found in the works of succeeding composers who emulated some elements of his musical style. His embellishment of austere medieval plainchant by employing mellifluous harmonies made singing church music more pleasant to the ear, thus elevating church music of his day and further establishing the Mass as the main platform for elaborate polyphony.

The composer’s music appeal also extended into the secular realm, for there he also made his mark felt, and his melodic style would ultimately became characteristic of the early Renaissance. There is little doubt about Dufay’s unique contributions to the evolution of Western music, and today he still holds a special place in the pantheon of great composers.

Guillaume Dufay

Guillaume Dufay

Ron Clancy’s Love of Christmas Music Began at an Early Age

December 1st, 2010

It all started during the 1950 Christmas season. That was quite an exhilarating time for a six-year old boy at St. John’s Orphan’s Asylum in Philadelphia. For starters, Thanksgiving dinner was made a grand affair by the good folks of the Knights of Columbus who annually volunteered their time to fete hundreds of starry-eyed boys. The delicious platters of turkey and all the trimmings just kept on coming until every one of us had his fill. But that wasn’t all! After dessert of pumpkin or apple pie a la mode, we were all treated to a Disney movie. It was truly a delightful day, especially poignant for those hundreds of boys who had experienced so much deprivation before being taken in by the orphanage nuns, a wonderful and odd assortment of women, who, without exception, honored the preciousness of life by taking in all the hundreds.

The next four weeks of that holiday season brought one festive party after another. Hosted by local companies and colleges, we were giddy from all the excitement leading up to Santa’s big day. And when Villanova University students came by to treat us to a day in downtown Philadelphia, well, that was just the best. That meant shopping for our own Christmas gift at one of the Quaker City’s premium department stores – John Wanamaker, Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers, or Gimbels. It was a thrill just strolling along, or milling about, with bustling crowds of shoppers, most of whom were neatly groomed and dressed, and pausing every so often to behold the magical winter wonderlands on display in the large storefront windows. Our merriment was of untold, almost mystical, proportion, and the popular holiday songs and carols that filled the air only added to our festive mood. That was my first fond memory of the joys of Christmas music.

After shopping for our presents, the Villanova students treated us to a grand lunch at Horn and Hardart’s, a glass-and-chrome cafeteria styled coin-operated automat and Philadelphia institution since 1902. We were grateful for the treasury of coins pressed into our hands and then the selection process to buy Horn and Hardart’s delicious offerings began in earnest. Ten cents for macaroni and cheese! Twenty-five cents for a chicken pot pie! Ten cents for a small carton of milk! Fifteen-cents for lemon meringue pie! And to top it off, we were treated to a matinee double-header – a Laurel & Hardy short and the comedy Fancy Pants with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball that left us in stitches. All and all, it was a fantastic day for us orphan boys.

Finally, on a snow-dusted Christmas Eve, we were roused from our comfy beds for what would be for our first Midnight Mass. To this day I have never forgotten the feeling of awe I had then on entering the chapel. The crèche on the side of the altar was magnificent and easily caught my eye. There were the statues of the Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and surrounded by Joseph and Mary, shepherds, ox, ass and sheep, and overhead was an angel bearing the good tidings. “Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.” (Glory to God in the highest. And one earth peace to men of good will.)

The ceremonial burning of frankincense only added to the drowsy and sweet intoxication caused by the lush fragrance of Christmas firs tethered to the pillars throughout the intimate chapel. But what mostly enhanced my wonderment, which made the occasion truly memorable, was the singing of Christmas carols. Sung beautifully by a small choir of nuns, the enchanting notes of the mystic “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the reverential “Silent Night,” the Latin hymn “Adeste Fideles,” and other sacred carols seemed to spiral heavenward as though on the wings of angels. After that Midnight Mass and holiday season, I was hooked.

SPECIAL PERSON OF THE DAY: William E. Studwell (March 18, 1936 – August 2, 2010)


For the modern-day fraternity dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of Christmas carols, the recent death of William E. Studwell caused a great deal of sadness. A truly remarkable, as well as a great friend and trusted colleague, Studwell was a leading international authority on Christmas carols. His significant publication Christmas Carols: A Reference Guide (1985) is one of the best references on the subject and includes information on 789 carols. Publishing Glad Tidings: Essays on Christmas Music (1998), an excellent resource he co-authored, provides interesting insights about the personalities of major carol composers and carol book compilers. Other fine titles are his The Christmas Carol Reader (1995) and An Easy Guide to Christmas Carols: Their Past, Present and Future (2006), the latter which contains his list of the top 25 Christmas carols.

Despite suffering a neurological disorder that plagued him for a good portion of his life, that did not deter Prof. Studwell, as I like to address him, writing numerous articles about carols and other subjects, or editing nine of my Christmas music manuscripts in the mid-1990s, four of which have since been published. One of his favorite activities, though, was bequeathing to the public his annual “Carol of the Year,” a practice he began in 1986.

This year will be the 25th anniversary of his special holiday h’ors d’oeuvre, but sadly it will be his last. Prof. Studwell, though, must have sensed his end was near, having fallen ill with lymphoma earlier in the year. The day before he died he corresponded with his daughter Laura with specific details about his final installment of “Carol of the Year,” which will soon be published.

Prof. Studwell was an affable sort who was also much respected among academic librarians. The seventh child of a lower-middle class working family from Stamford, Connecticut, he once worked for the Library of Congress in the technical division of the Soviet and Russian collection, and there he developed an interest in Library Science. Three years after earning a Master of Library Science degree from Catholic University in 1967, he became head cataloger at the University of Libraries, Northern Illinois University where he distinguished himself for thirty-one years as the best library cataloger in the United States. At the same time, too, he was bringing honor to the annals of Christmas music by writing prodigiously on the topic. To those of us who are keenly aware of his work, he has rightfully carved out a special place for himself in the pantheon of Christmas carol contributors.

Christmas Music Expert to Tell Unique Story in Blogs

November 16th, 2010

Welcome to Christmas Classics Ltd., publisher and producer of exquisitely illustrated Christmas music collections, and Ron Clancy’s daily blog.

Only recently Ron was encouraged by several well-intentioned media folks to talk about the untold story of how he came to create exquisite Christmas music collections. But this is like asking a gourmand to dine on a swamp toad. His initial reluctance, however, soon melted away in recognition of the fact that 2010 is the 10th anniversary of the publication of his first title Best-Loved Christmas Carols.

That joyous event, seemingly a long time, was the unfolding of a mystical dream. The question was what medium Ron should use to tell his story. And then it came to him: write a blog, something which he had never done before. And blog it will be!

The daily blog will describe the twists and turns that lead to his becoming a publisher, a career that came by default since no publishing company or other enterprise expressed any interest in his Christmas music concepts. Deflated and sitting alone in his office in December 1999, he despaired about having nothing to show for ten years of exhaustive research about the origins of Christmas music. The more he sat, the more he realized that he had to do something, and that if I didn’t his dream would go to seed and years of obsessive efforts would wither in vain. Ron decided then and there to go it alone, and within days the paperwork to begin Christmas Classics Ltd. was officially filed with the state of New Jersey.

The adventure to self-publish will be told in episodic detail about what the corporate titans of direct marketing, Reader’s Digest and Time-Life Music, considered an “overly ambitious” or “tilting at the wind” effort to create ne plus ultra Christmas music collections. The daily blog will also feature a SPECIAL PERSON OF THE DAY – composer, lyricist, translator, clergyman, or other distinguished person who has contributed to the Christmas music repertoire.

Ron’s creative contributions to the repertoire are four highly illustrated compilations of favorite traditional carols, holiday songs, and classical pieces, each unique in its own way, but in sum providing an informative, and indeed novel, perspective on the history of Christmas music from the early years of Christianity to the 20th century.

What always energized Ron to go where others dared not tread was one simple objective: showcase in magnificent sight and sound the entire spectrum of Christmas music. Although some of that music still receives scant notice in our overly secularized commercial world, here is where he was determined to make a difference.

In the end his Christmas music collections may open the window, even if it is just a crack, to the beauty of liturgical and classical works that honor the seminal event of the Western World – the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thus, timeless Gregorian chant, sacred motets, instrumental pieces, such as Baroque Christmas concerti, all part of Sacred Christmas Music, share the stage with popular holiday fare for ballet, opera, and our much-loved traditional carols and songs.

The years of rearch and then publication of his findings, including two editions licensed by Sterling Publishing, have earned Ron the humble distinction as one of the leading experts on the history of Christmas music.

That was never his intention. What he wanted was simply to share his love for Christmas music by presenting it in a beautiful format that would ultimately astonish and amaze and become a cherished family heirloom. In so doing, Ron had hoped to enrich the legacy of Christmas music by raising it above the mundane.

Whether he has succeeded is not for us to say, but you may wish to learn about this episodic adventure by following his daily blog. Along the way you will also learn about the unique contributions of the Special Person of the Day.

All the best and Merry Christmas!

Christmas Classics Ltd.