The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY

Words: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1864;
Original title from the poem "Christmas Bells"

Music: "Waltham," John Baptiste Calkin, 1872.
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

Melody Line Only: MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

Alternate tune: "Mainzer," Joseph Mainzer (1801-1851)
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF
and a contemporary score written by John D. Marks, copyright.

1. 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.

2. I 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.

3. 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.'

4. 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.'

5. 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.

Sheet music by A. Herbert Brewer from Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916), Carol #564
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

Public Domain Recordings:

 A wonderful background article concerning the circumstances that led to the composition of this poem (and the subsequent carol), can be found in an article The Christmas Carol Soldier, by Rev. Robert Girard Carroon.

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader

In spite of the mentions of bells and Christmas in the title, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is as much an antiwar song as it is a pro-Christmas song. The poetry of this renowned carol was crafted by the great American literary figure, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), in the midst of the American Civil War. On Christmas Day in 1863, Longfellow wrote the familiar lines in response to the horror of the bloody fratricidal conflict in general and to the personal tragedy of his son, Lieutenant Charles Appleton Longfellow, who was severely wounded in November 1862.

It was not until sometime after 1872 that the 1863 poem, which was originally titled "Christmas Bells," was converted into a carol. Some unknown person in some unknown year recognized that Longfellow's stirring and optimistic interpretation of the bells of Christmas would make a magnificent mate for an 1872 processional which was strongly reminiscent of the ringing of bells. The composer of the appropriate tune, John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), was the most famous of a family of accomplished English musicians. At first Calkin's melody was published with the 1848 American hymn, "Fling Out the Banner! Let It Float" by George Washington Doane (1799-1859). Ironically, "Fling Out" was an old-fashioned militant missionary hymn which contrasted greatly in purpose and spirit from the more permanent partner of Calkin's music, "I Heard the Bells."

Although Calkin's melody is a beautiful, gentle, and lofty rendition of the sounds of Christmas bells and is quite well received during the holidays, at least three alternative tunes have been tried. These are the moderately popular wafting melody by Johnny Marks (1909-1985), who is most noted for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," plus tunes by John Bishop (ca. 1665-1737) and Alfred Herbert Brewer (1865-1928). Calkin's melody, however, remains predominant over the others.

As a pair, the resonant tones of Calkin's pensive music, the main component of his reputation, and the minor but excellent poem by Longfellow, comprise a very satisfying carol. On top of its fine artistry, it offers an undeniable moral whose essence resides in the two phrases with with each stanza ends. "Peace on earth, good-will to men" so appropriately covers both halves of the partly Christmas and partly pacific carol. No matter how long this particular song may endure, may its two highly desirable themes harmoniously blend together in an everlasting symbiosis for the benefit of humanity.

[A version other than Calkin or Marks was heard sung by television’s Walton Family on a Christmas special. I didn’t see the credits so cannot say whose version was being sung.]

Robert Joseph, The Christmas Book:

In some American Christmas carols, we encounter an optimistic spirit of freedom and democracy, ironically contrasted with the painful facts of history which surround the origins of the song. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words to this carol while America was in the midst of its bloody Civil War, on Christmas Eve, 1863. This was only six months after the Battle of Gettysberg where over 40,000 soldiers lost their lives. One of our country’s most influential writers, he taught literature for seventeen years at Harvard University. His faith in the power of God and man to join and transcend the horrors of war gave birth to this song, inspired by his hearing the ringing out of the Christmas bells. Nine years after it appeared as a poem, the tune was written by John Baptiste Calkin, an English organist and composer.

In 1956, the American lyricist and composer Johnny Marks wrote another score for this poem.

William L. Simon, ed., Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (1981)

A mood of intense melancholy overtook poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the years after his wife’s tragic death in a fire in 1861. The Civil War had broken out that same year, and it seemed to him that this was an additional punishment. Sitting down at his desk one day, he penned the poem "Christmas Bells. " As the bells continue to peal and peal, Longfellow recognizes that God is not dead after all, that right shall prevail, bringing peace and goodwill, as long as there is Christmas and its promise of new life. The poem has been sung to a tune written in the 1870s by an English organist, John Baptiste Calkin. In the 1950s, Johnny Marks, whose Christmas songs are many and choice, adapted Longfellow’s words and provided the modern musical setting that is used here and is commonly sung today. There have been many recordings of Marks' version, including ones by Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and Bing Crosby (who joked to Marks, "I see you finally got yourself a decent lyricist").

Ron Clancy, author of the Christmas Classics series of Christmas carol books, has now created a number of "The Story Behind The Music" YouTube videos recounting the histories of numerous Christmas carols, including this carol.

The Stories Behind The Music Of
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

 

For links to all of Clancy's carol videos, go to
Christmas Classics Videos

I do not have any financial or other relationship with Ron Clancy, The Christmas Classics, or YouTube.

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