I heard the bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas Day: Lyrics

Based on the poem “Christmas Bells” by 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!

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.”

General information

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day” is based on the 1864 poem “Christmas Bells” by American poet Longfellow, and is set for SATB a cappella choir.

The duration is 3:00 – 4:00 minutes, and level of difficulty is moderate. The work includes an optional solo in the tenor line, which would also suit a baritone, or even a low alto.

The beautiful poem “Christmas Bells” was written by Longfellow during the American Civil War (1861 – 1865). Longfellow was inspired to write the classic text after two family tragedies: the loss of his wife, who died as a result of accidental fire; and the severe wounding of his son Charles during the Mine Run Campaign.

For quite a while I’ve wanted to set this particular text, because I felt that the current musical settings available (of which there are a few) did not do the text justice. I felt that, although they are beautiful pieces in their own right, they do not reflect the deep sense of sadness and despair I read from the text. I wanted to write a work that conveyed the meaning that the poem gives to me.

“Christmas Bells” was first set to music in 1872, but I feel that none of the setting (of which I am aware) truly evoke the sadness that I feel when I learn of the story of “Christmas Bells”, and feel the deep sense of despair and confusion, as well as questioning of faith, that is conveyed by Longfellow’s words, as well as the final powerful, heart-felt declamation that, despite all, faith and God – and good – will prevail, despite the atrocities of the world.

Thus I wanted to write a piece of music that truly captured Longfellow’s feelings of sorrow at the troubles of the world, and horror that war should occur despite humanity’s best attempts at peace, as well as making the music deeply personal, with a haunting solo given to the tenor line – an attempt to give the poet’s words to music, at a point I feel is the crux of the text.

For artistic / musical reasons, I have omitted two stanzas from the original poem. I hope Longfellow would not criticise me too much for doing so.

May this Christmas be a peaceful one, with “peace on earth, good will to men!”

3 thoughts on “I heard the bells on Christmas Day

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