The Tintinnabulation of the Bells, Bells, Bells, Bells, Etc.
ells are a form of purposeful noise. A non-verbal tool people developed to talk to themselves over distance. An invention only slightly less old than the community itself. For centuries bells have been used to express communal alarm, exultation, grief, a call to gather or to pray, or just to tell everybody the time of day.
Kind of funny given that a bell basically makes just one sound, no matter what its motivation. A bit like playing charades with a mime. Over time bells have become not just communication tools but musical instruments and objects of art as well.
The bell industry first arose in ancient China—where else?—around 2000 BCE with advancing metallurgy techniques. Chinese rang bells to communicate directly with spirits. In East Asia the fading tone of the bell is still considered spiritually significant.
The bells of St. Clement Danes Church in London play the nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons." (See The Byrds video notes, below.) The church was reputedly established in the 9th century by Danes. The current edifice (completed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1682), was gutted during the Blitz and rebuilt and today serves as the central church of the Royal Air Force.
In western culture, the ringing of bells can be traced back to pagan winter celebrations. But in 400 CE the business got what every business needs—an anchor tenant—when Paulinus of Nola introduced church bells into the Christian Church.
The process of casting bells is called bellfounding or bellmaking, and in Europe it dates to the 4th or 5th century. The traditional metal is a bronze of about 23% tin, known as bell metal. Other materials sometimes used for large bells include brass and iron. Steel was tried for its economy over bronze, but was found not to be durable.
Bells can be made to ring in a variety of ways. The bell can be fixed and the clapper can move, it can be struck on its exterior, or it can be hung so that both the bell and the clapper move back and forth.
Carillons are sets of tuned bells numbering at least 23. Carillon art reached a pinnacle in the latter half of the 17th century. Founders in the Netherlands were the first to tune bells with precision.
The carillon was introduced to the United States in 1922. The world's two largest, each with 72 bells, were built for the Riverside Church in New York City and for Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.
The great bourdon bell Emmanuel (1681) in Notre-Dame Cathedral's South Tower weighs 13 tons. It is always rung first. Emmanuel proclaimed Paris's liberation in August 1944. In 2012 the four 19th-century bells in the North Tower were removed to be replaced with a set of 8 new bells cast by the foundry in Normandy that had made the four in 1856. Also, a much larger bell called Marie (6 tons) was cast in the Netherlands and will eventually hang with Emmanuel. The chime below is Marie's.
By the Middle Ages, church bells were common throughout Europe. Just like beer, the Chinese may have been the inventors, but it was the Irish who sold them into a popular fad. Smooth-talking Irish missionaries it was, probably a little drunk. The oldest church bell in the world is one donated by Despot Alexius Slav to the metropolitan church in Melnik, Bulgaria, around 1211-1216.
People commonly believed that church bells had the power to protect them from harm. Church bells were rung to ward off thunderstorms, frighten away witches, and halt outbreaks of disease. Now that's some salesmanship, even for Irish missionaries.
The Church began to embrace celebrating Christmas late in the fourth century. Just about the same time it began embracing bells. So church bells were associated with the celebration of the Nativity right from the beginning, rung to proclaim the birth of Jesus Christ and call the faithful (however slight their impulse) to come and pray.
In times of war bells were melted down to make cannons, but in times of peace cannons were melted down to make bells
Both the Anglican and Catholic churches traditionally followed the rule that the church day starts at sunset. Any service after sundown is considered the first service of the next day. So a service at midnight on Christmas Eve is traditionally considered the first service of Christmas Day.
In some churches in the United Kingdom, the largest bell in the tower is rung four times in the hour before midnight and then at midnight all the bells are rung in celebration. In Norway, the Christmas bells begin ringing at 4:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve; and in England, they begin to ring their bells at 11:00 p.m.
From the Middle Ages right up to modern times, the Bell industry grew right along with the church building industry. And the church building industry in western civilization has been something to rival the digital age in terms of its continuous evolution and cultural impact.
During the 19th century, tuning techniques were forgotten as orders for bells slackened; the bells that were made were generally inferior, and many carillons fell into disrepair. The rediscovery of the tuning process in the 1890s initiated a revival of carillon art.