The year is going, let him go

What Alfred Lord Tennyson instructs the church bells in canto CVI of “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” I am begging the Holy Spirit to do in my own heart and mind, my communities, and across the world for the new year:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

This passage, from one of the greatest (and longest!) poems of the nineteenth century, is the source of the popular expression “ring out the old, ring in the new.” Ringing church bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve was already a deep-set tradition in England, and people understood the ringing as ushering in both life (the new year ahead) and death (saying good-bye to the past). But Tennyson’s poeticization of this symbolic practice has made its symbolism all the more enduring, and his list of specific qualities to let go of and others to welcome in provides a helpful template for new-year prayer and resolution making.

Roof, Winter by Arkhip Kuindzhi
Arkhip Kuindzhi (Russian, ca. 1842–1910), Roof. Winter, 1876. Oil on canvas on cardboard, 40 × 25 cm.

Tennyson apostrophizes his city’s church bells, telling them to ring out all of last year’s sins and griefs, falsehoods, feuds, strife, greed, bad-mouthing, economic disparities, political posturing, spite, war, and disease—all the year’s coldness and darkness, be gone. And ring in, sweet bells, truth, redress, purity, peace, joy, righteousness, love of the good, large hearts and kind hands, courage, freedom. And most important, “ring in the Christ that is to be.” Extending the cry of Advent, this final line acknowledges that although Christ was born into our world at Christmas, he is still yet to come in all his power and glory. That’s why we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”—or, “ring in the Christ that is to be.” Savior, come, uprooting all wrongs, setting all to right.

In 1948 Mormon composer Crawford Gates set Tennyson’s text to music; the hymn sheet can be downloaded for free from the LDS website, and authorization is given for live church performances, no license required.

Then in 2014 singer-songwriter Callie Crofts wrote an absolutely beautiful three-part a cappella arrangement of Gates’s hymn, which she performed with her sisters, Colette Butler and Devri Esplin, on their family Christmas album, Sparrow in the Birch. (The entire album is a treasure; the title track—wow!)

Crofts’s version, which omits Tennyson’s fourth and sixth stanzas, captures a dual sense of lament (this is what we’ve done to each other; this is the darkness we’ve created) and expectation (God’s light will shine into this; this is what we want him to do). A modulation from the minor mode to the major occurs on the word “peace” in the penultimate verse, a sudden flash of hopefulness. The rich voice blending continues, the key melting gently back into A minor, until that final chord sounds—a Picardy third—surprising, again, with its brightness.

A form of resolution, a Picardy third is a major chord of the tonic that occurs at the end of a minor-key musical section or piece, achieved by raising the third of the expected minor triad by one half-step. So while we would expect the middle note of the final A chord to be C, Crofts raises it up by one semitone to C♯, creating a “happier triad.” Originating during the Renaissance, this harmonic device was especially used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to end solemn organ preludes and toccatas.

In The Language of Music, Deryck Cooke writes,

Western composers, expressing the “rightness” of happiness by means of a major third, expressed the “wrongness” of grief by means of the minor third, and for centuries, pieces in a minor key had to have a “happy ending”—a final major chord.

There was so much wrong committed this past year, so much closing down of possibilities, it would be easy to dwell in that minor mode. But we need to lean into the major. We need to confidently claim the promise of a bright and happy future, through the Christ who was and is and is to be, to whom belong all power, honor, and glory.

Below is a list of other musical settings of “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” It’s fun to hear the various interpretations, but of all of them, I still prefer Gates/Crofts:

  • Charles Gounod, 1880 [Listen]
  • Percy Fletcher, 1914 [Listen]
  • George Harrison, excerpted in “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” 1974 [Listen]
  • Ron Nelson, 1990 [Listen]
  • Andrew Downes, from Ballads for Christmas song cycle (No. 8, “New Year Bells”), 1992 [Listen]
  • Karl Jenkins, from the finale (“Better Is Peace”) to The Armed Man (A Mass for Peace), 1999 [Listen]
  • Jonathan Dove, from The Passing of the Year song cycle (No. 7), 2000 [Listen]
  • Godfrey Birtill, 2010 [Listen]
  • James Q. Mulholland, 2011 [Listen]
  • Stuart Brown, from Idylls song cycle (No. 1), 2015 [Listen]
  • [Update, 12/29/17—This song was just released today!] Alana Levandoski, 2017 [Listen]

3 thoughts on “The year is going, let him go

  1. Thank you for the poem; I’ll be reading it again, with intention, on the 31st. The first version I heard of it in song was by Gilbert Godfrey, and it’s vastly different from the ones you shared here; I found it to be powerful and upbeat, a catchy version that has stuck with me and pops up unexpectedly in my head at times.

    I’ll have to listen again to see if he changed the wording in some areas, but I believe he stayed true to the poem.

    Blessings upon your new year!

    Like

    1. Thanks for this. I did an online search for “Gilbert Godfrey Ring Out Wild Bells” and couldn’t find anything, but I did find an upbeat version by Godfrey Birtill–which is maybe what you meant. And I do quite like it. So thanks! I added it to the list above.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Whoops! Yes, Godfrey Birtill. I really shouldn’t write things until my brain is fully caffeinated!
        Glad you liked it; I’ll be listening to it again in the next few days.

        Like

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