The Winter Solstice in Song: A Short List for the Longest Night

On December 22, the world heralds the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. As the darkness lifts, the days will grow longer. Winter Solstice celebrations all over the world mark the midwinter cycle of the seasons and new beginnings.

The December solstice gave rise to celebrations that can be traced back to antiquity. Germanic peoples celebrated the feast of juul (yule or yuletide) which included burning a yule log to honor the Norse god Thor. Out of this, too, came yule singing and wassailing. Though some ancient practices were abolished by Christianity, many elements were arrogated, for instance, from the year-end bacchanal Roman Saturnalia. Romans sang songs, decked the halls with greens and garland. Though little is known about the actual music performed during the Roman imperial feast of the winter solstice, texts from the fifth-century Christian philosopher St. Augustine indicate that the songs were profane in nature.

Perhaps the most famous winter solstice celebration in the world takes place in the ancient ruins of Stonehenge, a monument built on a solstitial alignment. To this day, thousands of self-styled druids (Celtic priests), pagans, and visitors gather to usher in the first sunrise, after the long winter night. Revelers sing and dance among the stone landscape waiting for the sun to rise. Think George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”

Tradition and music are at the heart of solstice. Whether it’s religious or secular, the solstice has engendered beautiful music.

To hear what music would have sounded like at Stonehenge 4,000 years ago, check out this article and video from the website newscientist.com.

Medieval Gregorian chant is Latin liturgical tradition associated with Christmas mass. For decades, though, it has seen a resurgence in New Age music and world music movements. The iconic album Chant, recorded by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, inspires calm and serenity. Similarly, the Monks of Solesmes: Gregorian Chant Anthology, is a stirring collection by the Benedictine monks on the River Sarthe in western France. When the monastery began life again, in 1833 — having been closed since the French Revolution — the monks restored Gregorian chant to its proper place in history, after centuries of neglect. Today, Solesmes is recognized as the guardian and propagator of the chanting.

Flashback to the 1990s. The German band Gregorian is one of the most successful pop/classical/fusion project that mixes pop and rock songs with Gregorian chants. For old-school yule spirit, check out Christmas Chants.

 

Midwinter classical music includes:

  • Vivaldi’s winter concerto. One quarter of Franz Joseph
  • George Frideric Handel’s Messiah
  • Haydn’s oratorio, The Seasons, is devoted to winter and The Creation celebrates the creation of light or in Christianity, the first day of creation.
  • J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos
  • The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi
  • “Winter Dreams” by Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky
  • “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy
  • “Night Pieces” by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe
  • “Winter Journey” by Franz Schubert
  • Saxophonist Paul Winter’s concerts offer a modern pageantry on ancient solstice rituals of welcoming the return of the sun and the birth of the new year. His now famous Winter Solstice Celebration includes international musicians, dancers, and performing artists from many different traditions.

For Your Playlist:

  • For yule songs full of Celtic soul, Jaiya’s Firedance: Songs for the Winter Solstice is a blend of Medieval, Celtic, jazz, and worldbeat sounds.
  • “Solstice Bells,” by Jethro Tull (album Songs from the Wood)
  • “Winter Solstice Song,” by Lisa Thiel
  • “Bring Back the Light,” by Gypsy
  • “Carol of the Bells”
  • “I’ll Follow the Sun,” The Beatles
  • “The Sun is Gonna Rise,” by Bill Miller
  • “To Try for the Sun,” by Donovan
  • A Midwinter’s Night Dream by Loreena McKennitt
  • No one does winter blues like by Joni Mitchell (“Urge For Going”) and Leonard Cohen (“Famous Blue Raincoat”).
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Theresa Litz is a staff writer for Making Music.

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