New work in progress: “I heard the bells on Christmas Day”

I’m working on a new Christmas piece, based on the poem “Christmas Bells” by the American poet Longfellow (1807-1882).

The poem is perhaps better known as “I heard the bells on Christmas Day”, and has been set to music in the past. I’ll also be setting it to music under this title.

It’s unusual for me to write music based on text by other people – usually I write my own text – but in this instance the poem really struck me deeply, with its messages of hope and goodwill in times of war and hardship.

The words are strong and deeply felt, and I thought they deserved attention, especially in our times when terror and fear seem to be the main messages cast across our TV screens, and lack of forgiveness and absence of love seem far more common than true understanding and care for our fellows.

Here is the poem, in its entirety, posted below. I think you’ll agree that it is a great text worthy of a new setting.

Christmas Bells

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.”

So far the piece is working well, and I hope I do Longfellow’s masterpiece justice. The finished work will include duets between soprano and alto, and an alto solo / semichorus line on the penultimate verse. I hope the finished product will be haunting, and full of meaning without being overly sentimental.

The piece should be ready for release within a week or two, and it is my intent that it will eventually form part of the larger Christmas cycle that I am writing, which will likely include (among other works) Mary Sings A Lullaby, Christmas Bells, Night Wind of Bethlehem and Sing Christmas!

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