‘The Bells’ Set To Bells

Posted By Derek Nance on Jan 8, 2014 | 4 comments


If there is one poem people associate most with handbells, it has to be “The Bells” by Edgar Allen Poe.  In four masterfully crafted verses, Poe describes Silver Bells, Wedding Bells, Alarum Bells, and Iron Bells.  Back when I was in high school, this is the poem that introduced me the the word ‘tintinnabulation’.  David York, the director of Bells of the Cascades in Portland, Oregon found inspiration in this poem to create a work for bells and choir.  Using the poem as lyrics, York paints a sound image of each type of bell, from the beautiful wedding bells to crazed alarum bells.
I have been waiting for the video to post since July!  This was part of the National Seminar performance Bells of the Cascades gave during the 2013 Handbell National Seminar (the night after we gave our concert).  In addition to directing handbells, York directs the David York Ensemble, an advanced vocal choir in the area.  For this performance he brought the two groups together for what I believe was one of the first performances of this piece (I have been corrected.  This piece has been around for many years).

After seeing this performance live, I hoped they would eventually post it so that I could share it with all of you.  All of us in the audience were stunned by this piece.  York was only in his first year working with handbells when this piece was performed, but the group nails it and captures the different styles of bells both visually and audibly.  The poem is posted below the video if you want to follow along with the words.

I. Silver Bells

Hear the sledges with the bells — Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells —
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Hear the sledges with the bells — Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells —
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

II. Wedding Bells

Hear the mellow wedding bells — Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight! —
From the molten-golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtledove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells! How it dwells
On the Future! — how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells —
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

III. Alarum Bells

Hear the loud alarum bells — Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now — now to sit, or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair! How they clang, and clash and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells – Of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells —
In the clamor and the clanging of the bells!

IV. Iron Bells

Hear the tolling of the bells — Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats Is a groan.
And the people — ah, the people —
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone —
They are neither man nor woman —
They are neither brute nor human —
They are Ghouls: —
And their king it is who tolls: —
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
Rolls
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the paean of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the paean of the bells: —
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells: —
To the sobbing of the bells: —
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells —
To the tolling of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells, —
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

–Edgar Allen Poe, “The Bells,” 1845