I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day


[Audio above recorded live. Red Shift, Trey Davis, 16 Dec 2018.]

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. SATB, Bells, Bass Drum. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). 3′. Available from Hal Leonard. 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.)

Trey Davis and Red Shift were planning multiple performances of The Consolation of Apollo for the fall and winter of 2018, at the College Music Society annual conference in Vancouver in October, and back in their home of Baton Rouge, Louisiana in late December. Trey asked me about writing a Christmas carol for them, an original tune on an existing text. I agreed, and came around to liking 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 barely survive the war, so that personal connection added to the weight of agitation and foreboding he naturally felt during this titanic conflagration in U.S. history. He first wrote down the poem in 1863, on Christmas Day.

The four or five stanzas that have entered hymnals (sometimes in different orders) omit text referring to the South. I also chose not to set them, feeling that the general quote, “There is no peace on earth,” gave sufficient voice to the struggle of seeking, wishing, and praying for peace in a world that so often lacks it. (The entire text is below, with the deleted stanzas in italics.)

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

The tune is original. The side-step from C major to minor or E-flat or A-flat suggested by the 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 overly difficult, though, and should be well within the scope of choirs of a wide range of abilities. The bells 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!


Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!


It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

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.”


Posted on

19 October, 2018

Leave a Reply