Hear People Listen, Part 1

Hello again. It is my first entry of 2011 and I feel I have to explain myself a little. The New Year started with a busy communications job in Brooklyn and evening classes at NYU. At the end of March and beginning of April, I found myself in Romania interviewing family members and friends about their histories and pasts.

Now that you know what has happened to me, the Music Historian brings you a special first entry of the year.

Throughout my experience with a non-profit called StoryCorps, I learned that sometimes, the greatest soundtracks of our lives are without music.

Dave Isay, Founder of StoryCorps

Dave Isay, a former radio producer and recipient of the MacArthur’s “Genius” Fellowship, started this non-profit in 2003, recording and preserving the stories of everyday Americans from all walks of life. Today, StoryCorps has recorded and archived more than 30,000 interviews from over 60,000 Americans. In addition to preserving these stories at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, StoryCorps also broadcasts stories on NPR’s Morning Edition every Friday and animations on PBS. Dave also published people’s stories in his original bestsellers – Listening is an Act of Love and Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps.

The big question is – why do people find others’ life stories so intriguing? One reason might reside in the fact we are all individuals or a collective group of individuals who come from different backgrounds and are interested in learning about “ways of living” that are unfamiliar to us.

One StoryCorps recording that struck this chord with me is the story of “Danny and Annie”— a couple who had a late-life romance and happy marriage.

Danny and Annie

Judging from the number of views this animation received – about 1 million – it has struck a chord with other listeners as well.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, many people like it when strangers, close friends or family listen to their stories. I discovered this after I was interviewed by StoryCorps in January. I then decided to share the gift of recording and interviewing by taking StoryCorps’ portable interview kit abroad to family members in my parent’s native Bucharest in Romania.

My mother’s life-long friend in Bucharest fell gravely ill and was spending her time in Bucharest’s oncology center. My Mother planned to go to Romania to visit her friend and then I suggested the idea of going with my Mother to record their conversations and preserving them for her friend’s family. Excited by the idea, my Mom agreed to bring me along.

When we got to Bucharest however; we discovered the branch of the oncology center where my Mother’s friend was placed was completely quarantined and recording devices were not permitted in her room. Luckily, my father and his life-long friends wanted to record their story and two of my Mother’s other close friends also wanted a chance to tell their stories.

On April 7th, I returned to the United States with great stories from my parents’ native country, Romania.  I cannot wait to translate these stories into English and share them with readers.

Until then, I invite you to hear people listen at StoryCorps.

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Edgar Allen Poe’s Holiday Song

When I first heard about giving a Christmas recital with the Huntington Women’s Choir, these ideas for songs crossed my mind: “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” Thankfully, the Women’s choir would not sing any of these selections. Instead, we were handed a copy of “Hear the Sledges with the Bells.”

This unaccompanied song for first and second soprano and alto is written by Hugh S. Roberton. And to everyone’s surprise, the song is adapted from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe titled, “The Bells.”

During the Huntington Women’s Choir holiday recital, the instructor, Judy, confidently claimed, “it was perhaps the only happy moment in Poe’s life.”

Naturally, listeners concurred with this thought as the singers recited, Hear the Sledges with the bells, silver bells… What a world of merriment their melody foretells… how they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, tinkle in the icy air of night… While the stars that over sprinkle, all the heavens seem to twinkle with a crystalline delight.[1] However, scholars and researchers argue the poem’s jubilent appearance.

Kenneth Silverman in his book, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, claims the ringing of the bells are symbolic of the changing seasons: the transition from spring into winter. Silverman claims Poe may have used the ringing of the bells as a metaphor for life itself.[2]

The Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore offers an opposing view to Silverman’s interpretation. According to their historical records, Poe had no inspiration for this poem. He was staying at his cottage in Fordham, New York, and while with Marie Louise Shew- his wife’s nurse- in the same room; he listened to her comment on the bells ringing from afar.[3]

Whether or not Roberton interpreted “The Bells” as a dreary and grim rhyme, he certainly didn’t express it in his musical composition. Aside from the many interpretations and analysis created around this poem, Roberton wrote his song with a vivacious tempo and in the meter of 2/4, a meter used repeatedly for tunes within musicals. The key signature of D flat major, a key recognized by the tradition of romantic music as whimsical and dreamy, is another component that pulls the initial tone of the poem into a different direction.

“Hear the Sledges with the Bells” is a delightful song that invokes holiday cheer and joy without taking part in the fabricated repertoire fed to consumers Christmas after Christmas.


[1] Sir, Hugh Stevenson Roberton. “Hear The Sledges with the Bells.” (Bryn Mawr, PA: Theodore Presser Company, 1919).

[2, 3] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “The Bells,” (December 4, 2010), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bells (accessed December 12, 2010)