Christmas Music : I heard Bells on Christmas Day

Posted on November 30, 2016


“I heard Bells onChristmas Day” is  a Christmas song ,that doesn’t  really sound like others , it has  a melancholy sense to it and with good reason.   It was written first as a poem in midst of the Civil War by  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow  , which adds to a reason of its reason of melancholy along with some personal tradigdies that happened in his life at the same time : The Death of his wife in 1861, in 1862 his oldest son ,Charles was servery injured.  (source :Huffington Post )  On Christmas Day  1863,  Longfellow wrote the poem.

Which goes like this :

  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.”

source : Poem of the Week 

The poem starts with the narrator hearing the bells on Christmas Day, and the words of Christmas going “Peace on Earth and good will to men”  of  that’s what the bells are ushering ,but their is still the canons and battle of war , but the words of “Peace on Earth” still continues.  The narrator then despairs that there is no peace on Earth, and that  the war and the hatred  mocks that The last lines show a sense of encouragement that no matter what , right will prevail and there will be peace on earth and good will to men.

The poem was published in February of 1865  and was set to music in 1872 by  John Baptiste Calkin.  His musical arrangement was also used in some versions of the song.  Like this version by Johnny Cash :

Another arrangement was used by Frank  Sinatra and the Carpenters. (Though not together ,that would have been awesome though)

In the cash version  with an arrangement on Calkin’s musical score  it does sound a little more upbeat , but the tempo does fit the words.  The words used in the song are most of the poem except  lines 16 to 30 are removed then it comes back for the last 5 lines, while in the other arrangement (the version above song by Sinatra)  skips lines 11 to 25.  The music in 2nd version fits the melancholy  of the wording ,but it does add flourishes that don’t sound out of place.

It’s  a Christmas song that really you can feel the emotion of it when listening to it (which is good for any song really) and  it’s message  still has a question that  people wonder to this day.  Christmas , itself, is know for it’s joy and peace, accented with the idea of  peace on earth, which  is something that people strive to want and hope will happen.  It’s really a message of Christmas that we can understand even now.

Posted in: Christmas, Holidays