Saturday, October 6, 2012

I Heard the Bells.

Here are the Lyrics:
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

I love this song for several reasons:

Every verse takes a different mood, as the author takes an emotional journey through observation, cogitation, rejection, recognition and revelation.   Henry felt real emotions when writing this on Christmas day 1863:  He still bore physical and emotional scars from a 1861 fire that killed his wife Frances, when he heard that his soldier son Charlie had been badly (possibly fatally) wounded in November 1863 in the US Civil war that Henry did not support
.  In reading or singing the words, every verse takes a different tone, speed and feeling while still repeating (like the bells) the words "Peace on Earth, good will to men".
Yule Tide Favorites Cover
Several very good composers have written melodies to the poem.   Johnny Marks has a version of it, written alongside the songs he wrote for the 1964 stop-motion "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer".  It it was not included in the TV production, but it is often recorded beautifully by solo singers from Bing Crosby above   to Rockapella. 

The melody and harmony in the "Yuletide Favorites" book (without all the lyrics, thus this post) was made in
1872 when the British church organist and composer John Baptiste Calkin discovered that a melody he'd written in 1848 named "Waltham" fit the poem flawlessly.  His music is found across England and back to the USA in many hymn-books.   Choirs and congregations still use Calkin's melody.

The Timberliner's Chorus  will add this song to their Yuletide repertoire for 2012.  We already own copies, the harmonies are well-suited to barbershop style, and I'm especially fond of the "mu" chord first heard on the word "wild".

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