Monday, December 24, 2012

The Bells of Christmas

It's Christmas Eve and I wanted to give something to friends and neighbors to express my love and my testimony of the Savior whose birth we celebrate. How about some Christmas music?  

First, if you want to hear the closest thing I've found to what the angel's must have sounded like announcing Christ's birth, listen to Eric Whitacre's,

Lux Aurumque

Second, a piece I wrote, but it needs a little background first. I participated in a neighborhood Christmas concert on November 30th of this year and was inspired by the story shared before we sang an arrangement of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." It was a retelling of the story originally told during Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert (you can watch the segment here).  To summarize, the family of the well-known poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, were living a happy normal life when tragedy struck in 1861. In the Summer of that year, their house caught fire and took the life of Fanny, Henry's wife. In trying to rescue her, Henry received burns to his hands and face.
...For Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as [civil war] rages without, another [war] raged within. For the next two years, Christmases come and go. Henry writes: "How inexpressibly sad are all the holidays. 'A merry Christmas,' say the children. But that is no more for me. Perhaps someday God will give me peace."
Then, two years later, Henry learns his son who ran away to join the army has been wounded. He finds his son barely alive after days of searching in Washington.
We should not be surprised that on Christmas day, 1863, Henry reaches for his pen and writes: "It was as if an earthquake rent the hearthstones of a continent. 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.'"
Listening to the story, I thought of how painful holidays can be for those who have recently lost someone dear.  The sound of Christmas bells, to Henry, must have stirred feelings of sorrow and loss, not celebration. I wonder when that changed for him.  When did he come to the place where he could remember what he felt shortly after his wife's death,
 So strong is the sense of her presence upon me that I should hardly be surprised to look up now and see her in the room. Death is a beginning. Not an end. 
When did that feeling resurface and come together to change the ringing of bells to a hopeful sound?  That is exactly what the bells went on to symbolize for Henry and his family; what the lyrics he wrote have come to remind us.  As Ed Herrman read so beautifully,
In those bells the message is clear. On Christmas day, a Child was born in a stable. Of that Child Henry writes: "Though in a manger Thou draw breath, Thou art greater than life and death." And so He is! As the bells ring on, Henry dips his pen again, and again. Because Christmas lives on, Fanny lives on, Charles lives on, a nation lives on, and we, each one of us, may live on as well, in hope and peace forever.

Three days after this concert Adam and I were to play prelude, postlude and a few musical numbers at a memorial night put on by a hospice for the families of those who had passed during the year.  

As fate would have it, Adam got bronchitis the night before the Christmas Concert and couldn't sing in the choir (after two months of rehearsing :) or do the hospice music, but I was told by the hospice that I could do the gig as a solo. While pondering a new program sans Adam, I couldn't help feeling that the story behind the words Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote and the song itself, would be perfect for those mourning the recent loss of a loved one.  Now that I knew the emotions and events behind Longfellow's words, though, the melodies and arrangements I found of "I Heard the Bells" did not feel right.  I wanted something I could sing and play for these families that would express that loss of a loved one, and then the hope made possible through Christ. 

The piece I played for the hospice I still don't feel has found that "sweet spot," but I thought I'd share its current version before the season is over.  

 "The Bells of Christmas"



(Yes, the link is gone to Bells of Christmas ... maybe it'll be back next year? Needs...scrubbing!)

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