A Brief History of Hand Bells
Bells themselves go back a long way. They do have a direct connection with religion. In the fourth century, bells were cast and tuned to different pitches. Each bell would announce a specific prayer at various times throughout the day. Monks used cymbala; cup shaped bells hung from a metal bar during processionals, and to help with pitch for Psalms.
In Medieval years, bells towers were constructed. The first tower was in Campania, Italy. Through the 1600s, bell ringers learned to hang several bells in a belfry (the bats must have loved that), all tuned to a scale. Ringing these created a peal; three to twelve bells would be utilized for these. Peals continued their popularity through the 1700s, especially in the British Isles. Marathon peals, or change ringing, would last 24 hours or more. It was considered a test of physical and mental strength rather than one musical or religious.
Needless to say, the villagers were not always so amenable to 24 hour change ringing marathons; imagine the headaches. In 1660, William and Robert Cor were the first to cast bronze bells of different sized and pitches, and attach handles to them. These quieter, more manageable bells were found to be useful in hymns, and a new musical art form was born. Music began to be written just for hand bells.
It was P.T. Barnum who introduced handbells to the US in 1845. They have grown into a popular instrument for churches, and for communities and even are used for therapy with the elderly.
So, those are handbells. I rang with the Saxtons River Ringers for five and a half years. When I was a child, we had a bell choir from England stay with members of our congregation; they put on a phenomenal concert for us. Perhaps bells pull at the heartstrings of my heritage; a full 50% of my blood originating on the Isle across the pond. Bells are beautiful. They are a unique instrument, because even though there are several ringers, the group ultimately functions as a single unit. Each ringer must count and watch for their notes, and in doing so creates a unity with the others. If you ever get a chance to go to a mass ringing, go, for it is quite an experience. Usually, there are songs rang by the entire group, often several choirs joined together, with hundreds of ringers together. Single choirs will ring songs as well.
While it is helpful to be able to read music, it is not a necessity in learning bell ringing. Proper handling of the bell is imperative, both for the bell and the ringer. One starts with two or three bells; when that is comfortable, more can be added to the ringers range. In the beginning, counting is the most important. Once a ringer has that down, then creativity can be invited in. By that I mean the same as with any music. A ringer can add depth, feeling and emotion to their ringing, by the strength of the ring, and the “chemistry” of the choir and their comfort level with the song.
Like any choir, a bell choir is a time commitment and a challenge. For me, music, whether it is in church or in the car or wherever, speaks to me and asks me to be a more spiritual being. Often, ringing a great song, and knowing that we as a choir got it “just right”, is as powerful as sermon or prayer. Our bell choir at Christ Church rings up above and behind the congregation. It stirs me deep within to see the people looking up, and recognizing similar feeling in everyone’s faces. The joyful sound enters everyone’s heart and soul, uplifts, and sun pours in, and that is what makes it holy and beautiful.
Jennifer Schreiter April 2009 Newsletter LITS