Robert Manookin’s “Christmas Bells Are Ringing”

Continuing our Christmas theme, this week we’ll look at “Christmas Bells Are Ringing” by Robert Manookin

Details at a Glance

  • Voicing: SATB and piano
  • Lyrics: Robert Manookin
  • Language: English
  • Key(s): E
  • Difficulty: Choir—easy. Piano—easy.
  • Duration: 2:00 min.
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPHv2H5cj8QPages: 7
  • Price: $1.33/copy (April 2018 from Sheet Music Plus)
  • Download Site: Sheet Music Plus
  • Listen:

Review

Robert Manookin is one of the many twentieth-century composers who, despite their significant contribution to LDS music, is not a household name among Latter-day Saints. Among others of his works, his “Christmas Bells Are Ringing” has been recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Don’t let that pedigree scare you, though. The piece is well within the performing abilities of most ward choirs and would add some nice zest to a ward Christmas program. The music has a simple tune and is irresistibly joyful.

The song consists of three verses. In the first verse, the women in unison sing about Christmas bells hailing the Savior’s birth. In the second, the men and women sing in (non-strict) canon about Christmas carols resounding the joy of Christ’s coming and God’s love. In the third verse, all four parts sing in harmony about Christmas stars gleaming over the Christ-child’s stall and about the lasting peace Christ brings.

The part writing for the choir is excellent. There are only a handful of issues to note for rehearsal:

  • The unison women part mostly fits between E4 (* see note below) and C#4, but there is one E5 your altos may struggle to hit. That same E5 comes back in the second verse, which has only one slightly altered bar (m. 37) from the original tune.
  • The men’s part in verse 2 also has a high E (E3 in m. 37). Because the verse is not a strict canon, the men’s part stop directly imitating the women in bar 31. These bars — mm. 31-37 — will probably require some woodshedding.
  • The part writing in verse 3 is mostly all straight forward. The tenors and basses will need some help, though in bar 60. The tenors may also need a little help in bar 63, where they briefly take the lead. This passage at 63 isn’t hard, but your tenors probably won’t expect to suddenly be in the foreground.

The piano part has a lot of repetition. The bell pealing sound that opens the piece returns between verses and accompanies the start of each verse.  Many pianists will be able to sight read it with minimal problems. Weak sight readers will find the song relatively simple to learn as well.

Conclusion

Overall, Robert Manookin’s “Christmas Bells Are Ringing” is strongly worth your consideration when programming Christmas music for your ward choir. The singers and congregation will both love it.

Theory Corner: Naming Pitches

Often when we talk about pitches, we make reference to where it falls in the singer’s voice (e.g., a soprano’s high E versus her low E) or in relation to the piano’s middle C.

This system mostly works, but it can sometimes lead to some confusion. For instance, many soprano’s can sing three Cs: the one below the staff, the one in the staff, and the one above the staff. If we called the one above the staff her “high C” and the one below the staff her “low C,” would that make the one in the staff her “middle C”? That’d be really confusing, because the piano’s middle C would be the soprano’s low C.

To solve this confusion, there are three main systems for naming pitches in America: scientific pitch notation, Helmholtz pitch notation, and MIDI note numbers. Of these, the last is useless for choirs and the second can be somewhat confusing.

The most straightforward and practical for you and your choir to learn is scientific pitch notation. I used that system in my review today.

In that system, octaves span from C to B, and each octave has a specific number. In scientific pitch notation, the piano’s middle C is C4. The rest of the notes in a chromatic scale following that pitch would all be in octave 4 — C#4, D4, Eb4, etc. — until you reach the next C, the mid-staff C. Scientific pitch notation calls this note C5. In turn, the soprano’s high C is C6.

The same principle extends down into the men’s ranges, too. A tenor singing the piano’s middle C also sings C4, just like the soprano singing her lowest C. Although C4 falls in a different place in the ranges of a soprano or a tenor, scientific pitch notation calls this pitch the same name because it has the same frequency.

The website Theoretically Correct has a nice chart that explains these pitch-naming conventions a little further.

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