Ring out, wild bells is a setting of the poem by the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It is the first of the five songs that comprise my song cycle Idylls, scored for solo soprano and piano. Although relatively straightforward to sing, the soprano part does contain a couple of perfect fourth leaps up to a top B-natural, requiring a vocal range overall of a semitone short of two octaves. The piano part, though requiring accurate hand placement, is moderately easy to play.
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 want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
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.
The idea of writing a song cycle based on Tennyson’s poems first occurred to me in 1986. At that time I was thinking of a tenor rather than a soprano and perhaps that's why the present settings work with either voice. Although I ran my eyes over Ring out at the time, I could not see how to make it work because of the rather antiquated A-B-B-A rhyme structure of the verses. So I thought no more about it. I jotted down vague snippets of Saint Agnes' Eve and Of old sat Freedom on the heights, also about half of Crossing the Bar. Then a change of job resulted in me moving to another town quite some distance away and I lost the motivation to continue working on the songs. They lay dormant until 2014.
I got to know the London-based Chinese soprano Chen Wang through a mutual friend, who introduced her to my music. I offered to compose a song cycle for her and she liked the idea. At the time of making the suggestion I wasn't thinking specifically of the songs that I had started so many years previously, but listening to Chen's voice made me realise they would be the ideal material for her.
I had the song sketches from 1986 but needed more material. I found Love is and was my Lord and King and added it to the list. Then I came back to Ring out. I realised that by doubling up on the timing of the first line of each verse, I could make it work. I selected the verses without much hesitation then set about the music. The opening thunderous bell-like chords on the piano more or less composed themselves. In the third verse, which speaks of “the faithless coldness of our times” I very deliberately gave the music a distinctly sinister twist, culminating in the two perfect fourth leaps up to the top B-naturals on which the soprano sings, “Ring out! Ring out!” The quietly reflective ending provides the perfect foil for the light and delicate song that follows it.
The set of five songs, entitled Idylls and opening with Ring out was completed on 8th February 2015, nearly thirty years after I had first jotted down some thoughts about it. I decided to publish the songs individually as well as in the form of a song cycle in order to broaden their appeal.