Singing Bronze:
A History of Carillon Music
Luc Rombouts
(Lipsius Leuven)
"Will wonders never cease," my dear old mum would say when she came across something that was for her amazing, or unusual, or doughty.

It is a wonder for me that someone can come along with the oddest discipline, love, passion. and manage to take us along. Like, for instance, carillons.

Rombouts probably knows too much about carillons, where several bells are hooked together to make music. One of the few warm memories I have of the school they dragooned me into --- age, fourteen; face, pimpled; personality, raspy --- were the Sunday mornings. No class, nothing to do but go to church (we were given no choice).

On a quiet day, the peal of a gorgeous set of carillons at ten or so, getting us ready for the ten-thirty service. The Edith Memorial Chapel had a electric-keyboard carillon of 25 tubular bells, made in 1939 by the J.C.Deagan Company. a grand carillon which Dr. Swann managed to play expertly as, at the same time, he whaled away at the organ inside: "Onward Christian Soldiers, marching . . . marching . . . marching,"

But we were no longer marching, but running, for as we got closer and closer to the Ritual of the Closing of the Doors, one lower-note bell began to sound, mournfully. slowly --- doom approaching as we yanked on pants and shoes, stuffed arms in jackets, threw the night-before pre-tied tie about the neck . . . then running full-out, the slow tolling of the upcoming hour-and-forty-five minute service (over-extended Bible readings, hour-long sermon, a listless, lustless hour), while white-haired, kindly Dr. Swann going at his gorgeous carillons, tolling time for us to be in our seats, the tolling bells replaced at last with the high double upper C register Ding, Ding --- two that told us that the doors were now closing --- leading us to run up the steps just in time to be marked (and ready to drowse through yet another timeless time-warp of remembrance of things past; do they still do things like this to the hapless student?

That was what Singing Bronze brought back to me . . . along with assorted random, often surprising facts:

  • In the Divine Comedy, Dante wrote of the earliest carillons, which had come into being in the 13th Century. It was said that they produced heavenly sounds, tin tin sonando consì dolce nota.
  • The first clock carillon was built around 1400 in the monastery of Windesheim in the Netherlands, where Brother Hendrik Loder constructed one with seven bells which would ring out a "Gregorian sequence Sancti Spiritus Adsit nobis gratia to wake the monks and place them in the appropriate state of mind."
  • For the first time, the "lapse of time" gave Europeans "a new experience of day and night." Since bells were struck not by machine but by hand, those hands had to depend on a clockless world.
  • The hardest of the lot was Matins, to be struck at midnight. "The bell-ringing monk could not use a sundial. Moreover, he himself needed an audible signal to wake up." Problem solved: the water clock, which at around 11 or 11:30 would lurch into action and waterboard the monk. I just made that up . . . silly me. No: the water clock "sounded the bell at the appropriate hour."
  • Escapement came to rescue the sleepless monk in the form of a weight suspended on a rope, with an escape wheel, a vertical gear. As Rombouts says (nicely), "Time had become music, and thanks to the new forestroke, the abbey more than ever was bathed in the aura of the sacred."
  • Much is made of the difficulty of casting bells. If you only had one, there was no problem, for there was nothing else around for the sound to compete with. But with carillons, there was the exasperating necessity of having the bells talk to and agree with each other . . . and not go jangling off in some minor third that had nothing to do with the tonic fifth, the major ninth, and all that other elegant finery in the musical world of these noisy clappers.
Much is made of tones and overtones. As I was finishing this book, I happened to be in a small bucolic lovely idyllic gorgeous village in which, next to our lot, there stands a Catholic church with with its own bell tower (about eight feet tall, so that the bell-ringers can reach the bong mechanism).

This particular day, the bell was operated by a robust fortyish lady from a near-by farm. She was a character right out of Chaucer, no shrinking violet: large in shoulder and bust (and, presumably, heart); vigorous in arm and grip --- given to approaching bell-ringing as if she were out there in the fields chasing away the very devil himself.

I watched and listened, for the first time listening to what it is that makes a bell a, well, a bell (well!). Luc is right: it's the overtones, what he calls the "partial notes," that catch your attention. I had been immersed in his book for a few days, and all of a sudden the bellness of it all made sense. The "bong" of this or any other bell is not just a single tone. It is full, sensuous, complex in character, complex in duration, rich in the dying fall.

I listened for the first time as the author would want me to listen. I was hearing all of it, filled with the core truth that one simple passage gave me. It was as if for the first time the music of it that I heard so long ago, chastening me as I raced across campus to get there before the fatal close of the chapel door, but, also, at this very moment as Our Lady of the Fields pulled slowly on the heavy rope, she was pulling a complex of sounds from the sky, raising a full-throated song that, we find out, was something that I and all the other listeners over all the centuries were making up:

    For bells, the Bronze Age never ended. The best sounding bells are still cast in the expensive alloy, and in the conic form known since Antiquity. The bronze bell has an intimate relationship with the earth's atmosphere. When struck, parts of the bell body begin to vibrate at different rates at the same time, and dozens of partial notes are emitted into the air. The fastest sound waves do not go far and quickly die out, but the slower waves carry across long distances and move the air for a longer time. As the high partial notes fade, the resonance of the bell becomes thinner and more transparent. When the sound has almost disappeared, the lowest tone --- the fundamental --- continues to resound for a time until the bronze comes fully to rest and the final sound wave fades from the atmosphere. Most listeners are unable to hear the partial notes separately, but experience a total sound whose character is determined by their pitch and relative strength. The bell sound is, as it were, a color composed of a number of primary colors. The sounding together of this mass of partial notes does not result in dissonance, because good bells produce a clearly recognizable musical note: the strike note or the melody note . . .

    . . . The strike note is the bell's big bang, a vivid sound that starts at the moment the bell is struck and disappears immediately to make room for the resonance of the partial notes, which fan out like ripples in water. Strangely enough, the strike note cannot be found in the vibration pattern of the bronze. It is formed in the listener's brain, and thus is a purely psychological phenomenon.

--- L. W. Milam
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