I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)

Here’s a hopeful song written by a worried man during the great trauma of the American Civil War.

Those who’ve followed along on this blog in 2018 will know that I’ve performed several pieces with words written by that man, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve written about his once great fame and his steep fall from poetic fashion, but I’ve written little about his eventful personal life.

longfellows house in winter

Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.

 

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.

By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.

So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.

Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*  if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.

I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is  a gift.

The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)”  as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.

 

 

 

*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,”  but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.

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In the Bleak Midwinter

Tomorrow is Christmas, a holiday that in the English-speaking world owes a lot to the English Victorians in conception, which gives me an excuse to present once again the words of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, this time in the guise of her popular and explicitly Christian-religious Christmas song “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Burne-Jones' Nativity

“You could have brought a casserole.” Victorian painter Edward Burne-Jones’ nativity.
Is it just me, or is Mary looking a little non-plussed by all the visitors?

 

The song used for Rossetti’s words seems to be attributed to Gustav Holst, a composer who is best known to me for his orchestral suite “The Planets,”  which has been admired or borrowed from by both Frank Zappa and King Crimson. In my rush to complete this today I can’t say that I’ve done as much justice to his tune, though I used a rough approximation of it.

The tune is quite pretty, and it makes it a fine solo for any good singer, which therefore makes it a challenge for me, so I’ve resorted to my usual parlando. On the other hand, a great many versions of this song in hymn books and elsewhere seem to have modified Christina Rossetti’s words, changing terms and phrases, even dropping some stanzas, where I’ve been faithful to them. I don’t have my usual time today to research why this would be. The meter of her original text is slightly irregular, and so it may have been modified for better singability or for audience reasons.

Botticelli's Mystic Nativity

Botticelli’s “Mystic Nativity.” Painted before the career of Raphael
So literally, a first-order “Pre-Raphaelite”

 

Rossetti’s approach makes use of her characteristic modesty in approaching religious subjects, with some lovely lines in the first verse picturing our northern Midwinter, and then going on to describe the stable setting, and the supernatural surrounding sentimental maternity and spiritual imminence.

Musically, I tried to compensate for my speaking the words by unleashing my bass playing. Like some gifts you may get this Christmas, it may not be the right size or color—but it was given in a good spirit at least.

To un-wrap it, use the player below.

 

Winter is Good

Here in the upper Midwest we are now in the middle of winter, and so are in a various ambivalence about it. Part of us doesn’t like the burden of winter, part of us wants to taunt it, and show that we can still have the upper hand over it, and some of us, those who don’t want to stop reading the book of nature, can find a cold, white chapter to puzzle over and admire.

I’ve already spoken here about how Minneapolis was settled as something of a colonial outpost of New England. The author of the words for this episode, Emily Dickinson was a lifelong New Englander, steeped in Transcendentalist thought, so we know she’s read that Winter chapter.

Just before dawn this morning, I jumped on my winter bicycle and took a ride to my favorite breakfast café.  It was seasonable, 20 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing, the streetlight globes surrounded with particulate halos of pelting snow. My tires were crunching the snow, the big knobs of their tread like typewriter keys imprinting the blank pavement’s page. It really was quite beautiful, if obscure of meaning. Summer rain saturates us, inebriates us. Snow surrounds us, but we are never more than a transient part of it, unable to understand its dance.

Roughneck in snow closeup

Winter is good – his Hoar Delights!  Also, there is tea and a frittata involved.

 

Emily Dickinson’s words are featured here a lot because she’s a great lyric poet and her words fit with music almost without effort. I learned decades ago that Dickinson favored “hymn meter,” that 8,6,8,6 syllable verse that makes much of Dickinson singable to the melodies of “Amazing Grace” or the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. For “Winter is Good” I decided to throw out that pattern, turning some lines into refrains and marrying it to a melody similar to the Christmas carol “Joy To the World” instead.

Dickinson’s second verse is a doozy. Just 17 words in her text, but it twists so wildly. “Generic as a Quarry”—there’s winter’s white page I suppose. “And hearty – as a Rose-“ not sure where we go there. Dickinson was an avid gardener, and she no doubt missed her summer plants, but my best guess is just rosy cheeks.  And finally, the concluding two lines “Invited with asperity/But welcome when he goes.” A jokey finish that seems like it’s singing the old joke about the pleasure of hitting oneself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop.

Our various ambivalence aside, that’s what the Winter chapter in the book of nature says to us Northerners, our words arise and are recovered over by the white page; our music only the spaces between silence, soon to be drifted in.

To hear the LYL Band play this hymn to winter with words by Emily Dickinson, click on the gadget below.