Tune of the Day: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Despite the mention of bells and Christmas in the title, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is as much an antiwar song as it is a Christmas song. In fact, the poetry of this renowned carol was crafted by the great American literary figure Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 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, who was severely wounded in November 1862.
It was not until sometime after 1872 that the poem, which was originally titled “Christmas Bells”, was converted into a carol. The composer of the tune, organist John Baptiste Calkin, 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. 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.
Although Calkin's melody, which is actually titled “Waltham”, is beautiful, at least three alternative tunes have been tried. Among these, the wafting melody by Johnny Marks (who is most noted for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) has become particularly popular. Marks' composition is now often used for modern recordings of the song, while Calkin's melody was notably featured in recordings by Elvis Presley, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Jimmie Rodgers.