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I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. SATB, Bells, Bass Drum. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). 3′. Commissioned by Red Shift, Trey Davis, conductor, and premiered 15, 16 Dec 2018, St. Joseph Cathedral, Baton Rouge, La. (Crotales, Glockenspiel, Handbells, Organ Chimes, or any appropriate pitched bells may be used. Piano may be used, perhaps played up an octave, if no bells are available. Bass Drum or any low drum may be used.)

When Trey Davis and Red Shift were planning multiple 2018 performances of The Consolation of Apollo, at the College Music Society annual conference in Vancouver in October and in Red Shift’s home of Baton Rouge in December, Trey asked me about writing a Christmas carol for them, an original tune on an existing text. I agreed, and liked one of his first suggestions the best.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during the Civil War. His oldest son had joined the Union Army, and would survive the war, though with serious injuries, so his personal connection added to the weight of agitation and foreboding felt by everyone during this titanic conflagration in U.S. history. Longfellow wrote it on Christmas Day, 1863.

The five stanzas that have entered hymnals (sometimes four, sometimes in different orders) omit verses referring to the South, and I have kept to those five. “There is no peace on earth” gives sufficient voice to the struggle of seeking, wishing, and praying for peace in a world that so often lacks it.

I included crotales and bass drum because they are used in The Consolation of Apollo, which would be on the same concerts, and Trey offered their use if I wanted. There would be no piano available, so this is, but for those instruments, sung a cappella. Most any kind of bells or low drum can be used.

The side-step from C major to minor (or E-flat or A-flat) suggested by this original tune is fleshed out in different ways as voices are added, and made Verse 4’s chromatics somewhat adventurous in its depiction of hate and mocking. It is not difficult, though, and is well within the scope of choirs of a wide range of abilities. The bells, imitating the “old, familiar carols” ringing from church steeples, quote bits of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” ending with “In excelsis Deo.”

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!

 

And 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!

 

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!

 

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.”

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