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  • Graham Abbott

Bells Real and Otherwise

Anyone who knows me will know that I’m fascinated by the city of Venice. I’m fortunate to have visited the city seven times since 1997, spending about a week there each time. Venice is full of churches, and many of these churches have bells which ring every day. On Sundays the city is awash with the sounds of bells, something which never fails to make me stop in my tracks to just drink it all in.



On a visit in January 2005 I had a wonderful aural experience. I was staying in a small hotel in the centre of the city which was very close to the church of S. Zulian. The bells of S. Zulian rang at 7 and 12, am and pm, every day; on Sundays they seemed to go off every hour. At 9 am on one particular Sunday I was in my hotel room preparing to go out for the day’s explorations when the bells of S. Zulian started. Then another church nearby started, then another and another... The bells were of different pitches, going at different speeds, and because of the distances were at different volumes. I sat there for some minutes utterly fascinated by it all until it dawned on me that I was experiencing my own version of Tosca Act 3. Just after the beginning of the third act of Puccini’s Tosca, the composer recreates the bells of Rome’s churches ringing at dawn as they might be heard from the Castel Sant’Angelo, a passage which is challenging to realise in an opera theatre. It then occurred to me that composers have over the years been fascinated by bells in one form or another... and what you read here is the result!


The two pictures below were taken by me from the top of the Castel Sant'Angelo when I visited Rome in January, 2019.




Here’s that passage from the third act of Puccini’s Tosca. The bells of Rome’s churches aren’t as loud as the orchestral melody, but they add the most beautiful ambience to the scene. In this 1978 live performance from The Met in New York, the bells start just after the 3’00 mark and continue for about two and a half minutes. [listen]


Composers don’t always go to the trouble of attempting to recreate the notes of actual bells in their music, as Puccini did in Tosca, but when the bells are famous and easily recognisable then some composers can’t resist. The French organist and composer Louis Vierne (who lived from 1870 to 1937) included the notes of London's Big Ben in his Carillon de Westminster, a piece dedicated to the organ builder Henry Willis III. The chimes of Big Ben, imitated by clocks around the world, are woven ingeniously into the melodic lines and the accompaniments of this magnificent organ solo. This recording features the Australian organist David Drury playing the grand organ of the Sydney Town Hall. [listen]


Grand Organ, Sydney Town Hall (completed 1890)

The association of bells with churches informs a lot of composers’ music which seeks to emulate bell-like sounds. In addition to this, the piano is an excellent instrument for emulating bells because of its ability to sustain sound and yet fade, as bells do. In one of the pieces in his first book of Preludes (published in 1910) Debussy describes the cathedral of the legendary city of Ys, which (according to a Breton legend) was submerged under the sea. The spires of the cathedral and the chanting of monks can be seen and heard emerging from the sea on misty mornings. The bells of the cathedral were clearly in Debussy’s mind as well when he wrote La cathédrale engloutie (The sunken cathedral), played here by Nelson Freire. [listen]


Escher: The Drowned Cathedral

Shortly before the publication of the Debussy Preludes, Ravel published a set of five piano pieces called Miroirs (Mirrors). One of these is called La Vallée des Cloches (The Valley of the Bells). Inspired by the bells of Paris tolling at noon, the composer - like many others who imitate bells - focuses on the interval of a fourth (two notes which are four notes apart). The fourth is an interval which is heard in the overtones of bells when they ring, and it automatically suggests bells to the listener who is familiar with the way real bells sound. Here’s is Ravel’s piece, played by Jean-Philippe Collard. [listen]


In 1944, Percy Grainger made an arrangement of Ravel’s piano piece for an ensemble of pianos, percussion, strings and harp. Grainger was fascinated by the possibilities of percussion instruments, and had a special interest in the expressive possibilities of bells and bell-like instruments. Here’s a performance of Grainger’s beautiful arrangement. [listen]


Percy Grainger (1922)

A French composer of an earlier generation, Georges Bizet, evoked the sounds of bells in his music for the play L’Arlesienne. Originally composed in 1872 for a small ensemble of instruments because that’s all the theatre could afford, Bizet arranged four of the movements into an orchestral suite. The last of these is a Carillon, where the horns play a three note ostinato which is intended to evoke the ringing of church bells. [listen]


Bells, of course, exist in contexts other than churches. Hand bells were used to summon the hired help in the houses of the nobility, for example. (For all I know they still are!) In the first act of The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart sets to music a short duet in which Figaro and Susanna (the hired help, as it were) discuss the pros and cons of being so close to the bedrooms of the superiors. They sing about the Count and Countess ringing their bells, and in the Italian text the words din din and don don can be heard - “ding” and “dong” in English of course. Here we have voices (as well as the orchestra) imitating bells, bells which may have innocent or not-so-innocent intentions. [listen]


There are bells in churches other than those in steeples summoning the faithful. In the Catholic tradition (and others as well), bells are rung during the Mass at the moment when the bread and wine are consecrated. As this is when the Sanctus is said or sung, the bells are often referred to as “Sanctus bells”.


In his War Requiem of 1962, Benjamin Britten used bells and bell-like instruments in his setting of the Sanctus. This is a clear and obvious reference to the Sanctus bell, but given the work’s anti-war stance it could also be a means of raising alarm, a warning of dire things to come... [listen]


It was in an earlier work - his 1945 opera Peter Grimes - that Britten evoked more conventional church bells, albeit in a most unconventional opera. The narrow-minded people of the Borough and the non-conformist, uncertain nature of the titled character make for powerful drama, and for the point in the opera when the town assembles for church on the Sunday morning Britten created an orchestral interlude which is quite spectacular. Fourths abound in the orchestral texture, and the horns overlap at the beginning as if their music was played on a piano with the sustain pedal held down, so bells are hinted at from the outset. The woodwind writing suggests the gossipy nature of the town, and when the bell music returns, the colossal tones of a real bell and gong adds to the incredible power of this music. The bells toll for Grimes....and his hapless apprentices. [listen]


And of course, returning to Venice for a moment, Britten (who also returned to Venice shortly before he died) evokes the sound of Venetian church bells in a moving and almost terrifying way in his final opera, Death in Venice, first performed in 1973. These haunting sounds can be heard shortly after the 2’00 mark in this recording of the suite from the opera: [listen]


JMW Turner: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore (Venice, 1834)

It was Anton Bruckner who found a very simple way of evoking bells without actually using them. In his glorious Te Deum, which he completed in 1884, the work starts and ends with a repeated four-note descending figure which is clearly intended to suggest bells. This figure permeates much of the music, and as the Te Deum is a text of great jubilance (and as it was traditionally sung with the accompaniment of bells in some traditions), it’s also singularly appropriate. [listen]


Anton Bruckner (1886)

Let’s finish by returning to Percy Grainger, and another of his arrangements, this time of the music of JS Bach. Bach’s secular cantata BWV 208 is not widely known today apart from one movement which has been made into countless arrangements under its popular English title of “Sheep may safely graze”. This aria was arranged by Grainger for an orchestra which included all manner of bell-like instruments under the title of Blithe Bells. Granger called it a “free ramble” on Bach’s original and the result is quite captivating in its own right. [listen]


Some of you may be thinking of your own favourite bells pieces. I know I didn’t include the great bell moments in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, or in Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev, for example. There will be many more, I’m sure.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2005.

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