This is my brother’s favorite carol; I can see why, as it’s grown on me tremendously over the years. (Last time we discussed it, my favorite was Angels We Have Heard on High, because I loved the soloist melody). Carol of the Bells employs a technique almost lost among modern-day musicians except for acapella groups: use of the vocals as an instrument in their own rights, part of a glorious orchestra, as opposed to a show-stealing separate melody to be accompanied by inferior instruments. Have a listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:
The best part is how fast the song is; it takes a lot of technical skill to pull off the song legibly, both in enunciation and in harmony. Boston Pops illustrates why you shouldn’t just slow it down:
It’s nice, but not nearly as fun, is it?
The song barely needs arranging for an acapella group like Straight No Chaser:
Nor does it need vocals necessarily; one of the more famous arrangements is done by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who brings power and oomph to the mix:
I don’t think this version is bad; in its own right, it’s a very powerful piece. But I do think it’s basically a different song. When I’m in the mood for Carol, I want vocals; when I’m in the mood for awesome instrumental music, I usually toss the TSO version into the mix.
(I went to their concert last Christmas! That was a fun experience. I’m glad our seats were so far back or I might have had a wicked headache by the end though)
(While I’m on a side note, this song was apparently in Home Alone? It’s been too long since I watched that one:
While looking for versions I was familiar with, I found this interesting Cello arrangement:
That’s not to say all versions are winners, sadly. I remember vividly the year the version by Destiny’s Child came out; I was torn, because I was a huge fan of theirs, but they just totally missed the spirit of the song:
The vocals are gorgeous! But it’s not the right song for that kind of arrangement. For that reason I get nervous any time I see a cover version by a pop artist; they’re not known for doing complex arrangements like that justice. Jessica Simpson makes a decent effort:
(did you cringe at “without an end”? I did.)
I heard an alternate version on the radio the other day; at first, I assumed this was an evangelical rewording due to the “war on Christmas”, but as it turns out, it’s an alternate translation dating back to 1916 under the name “Ring, Christmas Bells”. The version I heard is by Ray Conniff:
Frankly, I don’t like it as much. Compare:
Hark, how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say
throw cares away
Christmas is here
bringing good cheer
to young and old
meek and the bold
Gaily they ring
while people sing
songs of good cheer
Christmas is here
Ring, Christmas bells
Tell all the world
Jesus is King!
With one accord,
The happy tale;
Welcome the Lord!
Ring, Christmas bells,
Sound far and near,
The birth day of
Jesus is here.
Herald the news
To old and young,
Tell it to all
In ev’ry tongue.
It doesn’t seem to flow as well, and seems almost… forced. Like, “This is about JESUS, dammit, nothing else can be sung about!” forced. “The birthday of / Jesus is here”? Plus it changes the AABB rhyme scheme into the more classic ABCB scheme. And who says “old and young” ever? It doesn’t seem natural.
To be totally fair, this arrangement (also by Ray Coniff, from 1963) is much better:
but it’s the words that bug me, so I wanted to showcase them first.
Then, of course, there’s the bell choir arrangement. Here’s Cast In Bronze:
And a handbell choir belonging to a church in GA:
(it’s hard to find a professional bell choir; any help? I’ve only heard it done in churches, but the quality of recordings suffers).