Sunday, October 10, 2010

'I heard the Bells' ~ thoughts on my creative process

I'm not sure how interesting this will be to other people, but I thought I'd document the thought processes behind my latest peice of music which you can listen to here :)

I first encountered the Poem 'Christmas Bells' by Longfellow when I was a teenager. I was browsing through a compilation of the music of 'Carols for Choirs' books 1-4 when the page opened at a text and a melody that I had never seen before.

The original poem text is 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!"

The setting I heard was not the famous one by Johnny Marks (click the links to listen) that has been recorded by Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Bing Crosby and even Pedro the Lion and it wasn't the John Baptist Calkin setting made famous by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was a little known setting by Allen Percival which I cannot find a recording of.

I had never heard the text before and the Percival setting was the only one I knew so a couple of years ago I started my own setting.

It languished in a forgotten file for many years until I recently pulled it out and gave it a shiny new finish.

I was inspired by the first 2 lines of text that the setting really needed to include a) Bells and b) An old familiar carol.

Some of the versions I've seen referenced carols by having some kind of prelude or postlude of a familiar melody that then morphs into the Longfellow text, but I wondered whether I could find a way to set the lyrics to a melody that would fit over the top of an existing carol. Quite a challenge!

I settled on 'Silent Night' - one of the most familiar carols of all time, and one that I had already done some subtle reharmonizations with. Because the melody of Silent Night has a lot of pauses it had the space required for me to weave in a counter melody for the Longfellow lyrics.

I chose to set 6 of the 7 verses as I was concerned about length (I omitted verse 2 which seemed the easiest one to skip without upsetting the overall meaning of the text.)

Verses 4, 5 and 6 have a different emotional feel to them compared to the others so I knew I had to do something musically different at that point.

The piece opens with the bells playing a gentle flowing carillon pattern over the sustained lower chords. The choir sings the first stanza of Silent Night in German, while the soloist sings the Longfellow text over the top. I'm hoping that this juxtaposition creates a sense of familiarity along with curiosity. The bells are playing a very idiomatic pattern, and Silent Night instantly conjured up Candle light carol services. After the first verse Silent Night fades away as the Choir takes over the text.

The soloist ends verse 2 (verse 3 of the text) singing 'Good will to men', but this melodic phrase is engulfed by new musical material. The choir sings of 'Canons thundering in the south' while the bells create sounds by Mart Lifts - the bell is rung by being slammed into the foam padding on the table and then lifted in the air. It's an urgent aggressive sound in contrast to the earlier section. The melody moves faster and uses darker sonorities and lots of diminished chords to paint with the music the dark images in the text.

The choir sings unaccompanied the stanza 'It was as if an earthquake rent....' The idea is that the choir is totally alone, the message of hope that the bells ring has deserted them. This section finishes with a unison held pitch, the harmonies and rhythms have abandoned the the piece and we are left with a solitary note.

The tenor soloist gives voice to this abandonment in the stanza 'And in despair I bowed my head...' He sings to the original melody of the Longfellow, but transformed into a minor key. His accompaniment is very sparse, just a few bells played with soft mallets hanging in the stillness.

But his despair isn't hopeless. The choir re-enters slowly layering their entrances over top of one another, as hope comes tumbling back to fill the silence. When the choir reaches its climax the handbells triumphantly return playing the melody of Silent Night, but this melody is now a song of triumph. 'God is not dead nor does He sleep!'.

As the choir fades on the final chord, the bells gently peal away to stillness.

Well that's the plan anyway :)

The piece will hopefully have it's first performance Monday Nov 29th at Rice University, but you can take a listen to a computer rendition of it (with the bells and the singers played your computer's sound card) by clicking this link here.

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