Acappella Friday: Winding up Winter

A cappella music (without instrumental accompaniment) is particularly enjoyable for me to listen to. As a poet (and an avocational musician), I am drawn to the similarities that poems and a cappella music have. Lyrical phrasing, meter, rhyming, and onomatopoeia mean so much to a cappella music, because it relies so heavily on the human vocal element.


So…winter is in full force, all wound up, blustery, snowy, icy, and *cold*.

A blogging friend posted Shakespeare’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” in her regular Wednesday poetry feature and it jogged a memory. A memory of a song that I couldn’t get out of my head once I read the poem.

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind
(William Shakespeare)

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

I’ve always interpreted this as Shakespeare writing about the nasty part of human relationships being worse than the bitterness of winter. Juxtaposed bleakness with heigh-ho and the holly seems a little tongue in cheek, or is it just him saying “I get it, I can’t depend on most people, but I’ll be jolly anyway.”

Anyway, the song…Again, this is not acapella, and I may have to rename this feature…but the inspiration of poetry to write music is undeniable.

John Quilter (1877-1953) was a composer of songs and light orchestral music in England. One of his songs was a setting of Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind, as part of his Three Shakespeare Songs, Op.6. I recall this song from my college days, either during my short experience in voice lessons or perhaps one of my voice major friends doing this on a recital. But the melody immediately came to mind when I read the poem.

Being in a minor key, the inital verse is conveyed brilliantly by the swirling phrasing, and the heigh-ho section is very different…much more hey nonny nonny no (like a madrigal).

The recording I found was of famed English tenor Gervase Elwes (who incidentally, was actor Cary Elwes great-grandfather) performing the song in 1916. Quilter and Elwes collaborated on a number of songs prior to Elwes tragic death in 1921. This is a great performance. And I love the olde English pronunciation of “wind” – Wynd.

I discovered a second setting of this poem, a choral version written by John Rutter. The choral composition is much more haunting and consistent than the art song version. There are no sudden shifts in style (as with the Quilter version), and the accompaniment adds to the bleak winter ambience. It is very beautiful, mysterious and very Rutteresque, if you are familiar with his choral pieces, I think you’ll understand.

I think perhaps the poem may lose some of its intention in this composition by not contrasting more between the heigh-ho/holly and the winter wind, but it is beautifully written.

1 thought on “Acappella Friday: Winding up Winter

  1. Sarah W

    That last interpretation is beautiful, John—the first one is beautifully sung, but I think you’re right about it being uneven.

    Thanks for linking back! 🙂


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