Tobin Mueller's Midwinter Born is one of the most original solo piano
Christmas albums I've ever heard.
Using a broad mix of musical styles - usually more jazz than new age but impossible to classify -
Mueller puts a very personal spin on a collection of eighteen songs of the season that includes
several medleys. From the gorgeous cover artwork to the extended liner notes on Mueller's website,
this project was lovingly created as a personal expression of the joy and meaning of the Christmas holidays."
MIDWINTER BORN reinterprets traditional German, French and English Christmas carols
in a modern setting. It
captures the quiet simplicity, expectant playfulness, and over-riding joy of the season.
Few songs are more loved than the carols of Christmas. Most of us have memorized dozens, yet, for
the most part, we have no idea who wrote them. Many were small town church organists or anonymous
composers whose tunes predate the addition of lyrics that made them into Christmastime carols. Almost
none of these composers and poets lived to know how popular their work would become. I dedicate this
album to them. And to my mother, who passed along her love of this music (and taught me all the alto
harmonies), and never lost her willingness to toil in anonymity as a singer and arranger.
Tobin Mueller’s Midwinter Born is a top solo piano pick this year.
He has a lot that’s new to say with a generous helping of standards."
- Dr. Christmas (Gerry Grzyb), 2013.
Many of these musical choices have to do with my modal New Age roots as a piano player.
Coming to age as an artist in the late 1970's, I was part of a group of musicians who were drawn
to a certain modal openness, deceptively simple sounding complexity. The influence of hymns was
quite strong, as were jazz harmonies and voicings. Applying this style to Christmas carols seemed
most appropriate, and came second nature to me. I hope you enjoy this collection.
Midwinter Born introduces fresh takes on 18 familiar Christmas tunes.
Mueller probes the traditional melodies for hidden harmonies, chromatic
variants, and fanciful improvisations. In each case his departures
from the original have poetic and musical logic, and they deepen and
expand the universe of the melody.
The colors he is able to coax from the keys are rich and evocative,
and the tempos he explores add variety and vigor to the music.
Of particular interest are Hark the Herald Angels Sing, gracefully and elegantly
set in a New Age jazz milieu; Carol of the Bells, where his piano captures both
the sonority and the tinkling of the bells as well as the spiraling flight of the swallows;
and the exquisite simplicity of O Tannenbaum, where the theme ebbs, flows,
and breaks up with the rustle of the wind in the trees.
Mueller plays with a clean, sometimes deliberate articulation, and one is often
aware of the dialogue between his two hands - a feeling that adds an unexpected energy
and tension to the arrangements. The sound is very present and live."
"The First Noël" is a traditional classical English carol, most likely from the 18th century.
Noël, the French word for Christmas, is from the Latin word natalis which translates as "birthday."
In its current form, the song is of Cornish origin, first published in 1823. The melody is unusual
among English folk melodies in that it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by
a refrain which is a variation on that phrase. All three phrases end on the third of the scale, as
opposed to the tonic, like most carols. The original Cornish lyrics read "O well, O well, the Angels
did say" as opposed to "The first Noël..." The author is unknown.
I wanted to begin this collection simply. I kept the melody without ornament. The right hand ostinato
has a slight progressive rock feel (similar to the final track) and evokes the crystalline cold and
shining beauty of midwinter evenings, or a midnight rain of stardust. The ending verse is intended to
express how the first birthday has found a home deep within, never to be lost.
Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle (Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella)
"Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle" originated from the Provence region of France in the 16th century.
The song is usually notated in 3/8 time, creating a light, fast waltz feel. The carol was first
published in 1553 in France, and was subsequently translated into English in the 18th century. The song
was originally not a Christmas carol, but rather dance music for French nobility. In the carol, visitors
to the stable have to keep their voices down so the newborn can enjoy his dreams. To this day in the
Provence region, children dress up as shepherds and milkmaids, carrying torches and candles to Midnight
Mass on Christmas Eve, while singing the carol.
Ever since I played this carol on my flutophone in 5th grade, it has been one of my favorite corals.
I love the sense of freedom, the lighter-than-air balletic joy. I change keys several times to keep
the swirling chordal play moving upward.
"I Saw Three Ships" is a traditional Christmas carol from England. A variant of its parent
tune "Greensleeves," the earliest printed version of "Three Ships" is from the 17th century,
possibly Derbyshire, and was published in 1833. The lyrics mention the ships sailing into
Bethlehem, however the nearest body of water is the Dead Sea (about 20 miles away). The
reference to three ships might originate in the three ships that bore purported relics of the
Biblical magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century. Another possible reference may be to
Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia, who bore a coat of arms of three silver ships.
The fugue I use to begin this arrangement symbolizes the three ships weaving their way toward
their destination, enjoying the wind and waves and adventures of the long journey. The majestic
chordal section was a surprise to me, as I hadn't written it down beforehand. It just came to me
as I played, as things sometimes do.
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" first appeared in 1739, written by Charles Wesley. A sombre
man, Wesley had requested and received slow and solemn music for his lyrics, not the stirring
tune we now expect. Moreover, Wesley's original opening couplet was "Hark! how all the welkin
rings / Glory to the King of Kings". The popular version is the result of alterations by various
hands, notably George Whitefield, Wesley's co-worker, who changed the opening couplet to the
familiar one, and Felix Mendelssohn. A hundred years after publication, in 1840, Mendelssohn
composed a cantata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, and it
is music from this cantata, adapted by the English musician William H. Cummings to fit the lyrics
of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, that animates the carol we know today.
With a nod to Charles Wesley, I have set this version in a more solemn New Age jazz-blues
universe. In keeping with this style, the music shrugs off the sadness of the world and finds
strength in the grace and elegance of each melodic variation.
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is an English traditional carol. Like so many early Christmas
songs, the carol was written as a direct reaction to the church music of the 15th century. It
is referred to in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, 1843: "...at the first sound of 'God bless
you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!', Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action
that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost."
This is not only the fifth track on the album, but the arrangement is in 5/4 time. The style is
reminiscent of Dave Brubeck's recording, "Take Five" (written by Paul Desmond). I present this song
as an homage to one of my most beloved piano influences. The final variation is for three hands, as
I envision his ghost sitting beside me at the piano.
"Carol of the Bells" is by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych (1877-1921). The song is based
on a folk chant known in Ukrainian as "Shchedryk", based on the four-note motif. The original
work was intended to be sung a cappella. It was associated with the coming New Year which, in
pre-Christian Ukraine, was originally celebrated with the coming of spring in April. (This explains
why the original Ukrainian text speaks about a swallow returning and lambs being born.) With the
introduction of Christianity to Ukraine, and the adoption of the Julian calendar, the celebration of
the New Year was moved from April to January, and the holiday with which the chant was originally
associated became the Feast of Epiphany. In Ukraine, the chant is sung on the eve of the Julian New Year.
I hope I capture both the ringing of bells and the flight of swallows in my arrangement.
"O Holy Night" (Cantique de Noël) was composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 to the French poem "Minuit, chrétiens"
(Midnight, Christians) by Placide Cappeau (1808–1877). Cappeau, a wine merchant and poet, was asked by a
parish priest to write a Christmas poem. His version was more severe than what we sing today: "Midnight,
Christians, it is the solemn hour, when God as man descended unto us to erase the stain of original sin and
to end the wrath of His Father." I love his third verse: "The Redeemer has broken every bond. The Earth is
free, and Heaven is open. He sees a brother where there was only a slave, Love unites those that iron had
chained... People stand up! Sing of your deliverance. Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!" Unitarian
minister John Sullivan Dwight created a singing edition in 1855, employing the lyrics now used, including my
favorite carol phrase, "'til he appeared and the soul felt its worth."
I have always loved the breathtaking melodic build into the climactic line, "O night divine!" I begin there,
as a portend, then set out on a moody modal soft shoe reverie. The image for me is someone waiting in the
final hours of the night, happy and self-contented, unaware of the greater fulfillment that will soon arrive.
The final chords try to understate the climax of the music, making it instead an encompassing embrace.
"O come, O come, Emmanuel" is the mid-19th century translation of the Ecclesiastical Latin text "Veni,
veni, Emmanuel," based on the biblical prophecy from Isaiah 7:14 that states that God will give Israel
a sign that will be called Immanuel (God is with us). Matthew 1:23 states fulfillment of this prophecy
in the birth of Jesus. I use the older spelling "Immanuel" to harken back to Isaiah's Messiah and the
Departing from the traditional chant, I have set this melody to a driving romp. The repeating nature of
the single bass note makes me think of the many searching steps taken by those hoping to find their
Messiah, with a nod to the energy required and fun one can have along the way.
This track combines two songs: "Good King Wenceslas" and "Here We Come A-wassailing."
"Good King Wenceslas" is an eastern European carol that tells a story of Good King Wenceslas
braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (the second
day of Christmas, December 26). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle
against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king's footprints, step for
step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I,
Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935). The carol first appeared in 1853. The lyrics
were set to a tune based on a 13th century Finnish carol "Tempus adest floridum" ("The time is near
for flowering"), usually sung in spring.
"Here We Come A-wassailing" (or "Here We Come A-caroling") is an English traditional Christmas
carol and New Years song composed c. 1850. "Wassailing" refers to singing carols door to door wishing
good health. The Christmas spirit often made the rich a little more generous than usual, and bands
of beggars and orphans used to dance their way through the snowy streets of England, offering to sing
good cheer and to tell good fortune if the householder would give them a drink from his wassail bowl
or a penny or a pork pie or let them stand for a few minutes beside the warmth of his hearth. The
wassail bowl itself was a hearty combination of hot ale, apples, spices and mead, just alcoholic
enough to warm tingling toes and fingers of the singers.
Part 1 is the first part of Wenceslas' journey, capturing his buoyant spirit. The second variation
incorporates the nimble dexterity needed for hopping from footprint to footprint. The third variation
shows more confident footfalls coming, perhaps, from new-found faith.
Part 2 begins as the poor walk into the cold to begin wassailing. Their joy increases as they
sing and dance through the streets, and as the affluent open their doors and windows and hearts.
Then the long walk home begins, harkening back to the long walk of Wenceslas through the ice and snow.
"O Little Town of Bethlehem" was written by Phillips Brooks (1835–1893), an Episcopal priest
from Philadelphia. He was inspired by visiting the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in 1865. Three
years later, he wrote the poem for his church and his organist, Lewis Redner, added the music.
Redner's tune, simply titled "St. Louis," is the tune used most often for this carol in the United
States (and used here). In the Commonwealth, and sometimes in the U.S. (especially in the Episcopal
Church), "Forest Green" is used instead, adapted by Ralph Vaughan Williams from an English folk
ballad, "The Ploughboy's Dream."
I used Ralph Vaughan Williams' lush orchestrational style, as well as Bill Evans' jazz piano
voicings, as inspiration for my initial version of this American carol. But I end with something
more akin to my own image of St. Louis, as a wry nod to Brooks' organist.
"Joy to the World" is the most-published Christmas hymn in North America. The words are by English
hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 98. The song was first published in 1719. Watts wrote the
words of "Joy to the World" as a hymn glorifying Christ's triumphant return at the end of the age,
rather than a song celebrating Jesus' birth. Only the second half of Watts' lyrics are used today.
The music was adapted and arranged to Watts' lyrics by Lowell Mason in 1839 from an older melody which
was then believed to have originated from Handel, since fragments of the theme are from Handel's
"Messiah." However, Handel did not compose the entire tune. The name "Antioch" is generally cited.
I wanted to play against type and go for something that bordered more on the tragic than the
triumphant with my arrangement. I was imagining a mother's prescience: Mary might have had a feeling
of what was in store for her. We look into the eyes of newborns to see absolute innocence, not wisdom.
I've always imagined Jesus' eyes would know more than should be possible.
"O Tannenbaum" ("O Christmas Tree") is a traditional German folk song that became associated with the
Christmas tree by the early 20th century and is now sung as a Christmas carol. Tannenbaum is a fir tree.
The lyrics do not actually refer to Christmas, or describe a decorated Christmas tree. Instead, they
refer to the fir's evergreen qualities as a symbol of constancy and faithfulness. My father always sang
this song in German, coming from a small town in Wisconsin that spoke German up until our involvement
in WW1. It has special meaning to me, since my father rarely sang. This was his carol.
After stating the theme, I let the ebb and flow of wind cascade through the branches, moving the
melody from bough to bough, sometimes breaking it up a bit, sometimes letting it settle for a moment.
Ding Dong Merrily on High (le branle de i'Official)
"Ding Dong Merrily on High" first appeared as a secular dance tune known as "le branle de l'Official"
in Orchésographie, a dance book written by French cleric Jehan Tabourot (1519–1593). The lyrics are
from English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848–1934), the carol first published in 1924. Woodward
took an interest in church bell ringing, which no doubt aided him in writing it.
My left hand figure reminds me of the light yet steady steps of a folk dance. I begin the song in the
French countryside, but as the song progresses, I try to bring the chiming of bells into play. It evoke
handbells rather than steeple church bells. I imagine them played in a circle as young dancers recall
their practiced steps and gestures.
Es ist ein Ros enttsprungen / In the Bleak Midwinter
"Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" ("A rose has sprung up"), most commonly translated to English as "Lo,
How a Rose E'er Blooming" or "A Spotless Rose", is a Christmas carol of German origin. English translation
"Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" was written by Theodore Baker in 1894. I pair it with "In the Bleak
Midwinter," which has a similar feel. "In the Bleak Midwinter" is based on a poem by the English poet
Christina Rossetti written before 1872 in response to a request from the magazine Scribner's Monthly for a
Christmas poem. It was published posthumously in Rossetti's Poetic Works in 1904. The poem became a Christmas
carol after it appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Gustav Holst. However, Harold Darke's
later anthem setting of 1909 has become the tune we now hear and was named the best Christmas carol in a poll
of the world's leading choral experts in 2008.
The Italian grand piano I used for this recording almost quivers as I play, like the trembling stem of a
rose swaying above an earth still covered with snow. I use very open voicings, to assist the spaciousness of
the melodies. In the final verse, I evoke the bleakness of midwinter with the separation of the very low bass
and very high treble notes.
Still, still, still / It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
I use two songs on this track, one acting as an introduction and ending, one as the main body of the
arrangement. "Still, Still, Still" is an Austrian Christmas carol and lullaby. In German, its first line
is "Still, still, still, weil's Kindlein schlafen will!" (Hush, hush, hush, for the little child wants
to sleep!) The melody is a folk tune from Salzburg. The tune appeared first in 1865. The words, which
run to six verses in German, describe the peace of the infant Jesus and his mother as they sleep. The body
of the arrangement is "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" (sometimes rendered as "It Came Upon a Midnight
Clear"), a poem and Christmas carol written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland,
Massachusetts. Sears composed the five-stanza poem in 1849. In 1850, Richard Storrs Willis, a composer
who trained under Felix Mendelssohn, wrote the melody.
I end the phrases of "Still, still, still" with a minor feel, to better bring out the sense of "hush."
I like the way it sets up the delicate melody of "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." My favorite part of
the arrangement comes after I've stated the melody from "Midnight Clear" and vault into an improvised
section of spiraling chords, almost in the style of Chopin, lifting the song high into the night sky
of my imagination. The highest notes touch one special star, just for a moment.
"Silent Night" (German: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht; English translation: Silent Night, Holy Night)
is a popular Christmas carol, composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the
small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. The song was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at
the St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf. Young priest Father Mohr brought the words to his organist
Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the church service. Both performed
the carol during the mass on the night of December 24.
Being born in winter, as was I (Wisconsin), provides you with an instinctual desire for finding and
cherishing warmth. It may also help nurture an appreciation of long nights, solitude, and hot chocolate.
I hope my arrangement of Silent Night is a quiet echo of those nights and that longing.
This is medley a based on several holiday tunes, including Toyland, Carol of the
Bells, She Moved Through the Fair, and Auld Lang Syne. I play all synths, moog, organ and bass.
Jim Edwards is on electric guitar. It is best listened to in headphones! Then you can catch all
the sonic details. Jim and I did this track several years ago, combining our fascination for
progressive rock with our love of Christmas music. I had never had a project I could attach this
to... until now! Many thanks to Jim for letting me include it here.