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Clear As A Bell: Tolling In Classical Music

The bell tolls for Ether Game, as we set the alarm bells ringing with a show about bells!

For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for Ether Game!

Ring-a-ding ding, all you ding dongs out there! This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust is jingling and jangling, with a show that just might get your bell rung. It’s a show all about bells in classical music that we’re calling “Clear As A Bell.” Here’s our tolling playlist:


  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”): Papageno’s Aria “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” – The most famous set of bells in opera history are probably the enchanted bells we hear accompanying Papageno in this aria from The Magic Flute. When we hear this piece, both Papageno and his friend Prince Tamino are enduring the initiation trials of the Brotherhood of Wisdom, a masonic-like group that helps Tamino rescue the Princess Pamina. Papageno gets swept up in Tamino’s quest because the brotherhood has also promised to give him a wife, a “Papagana,” should he pass their trails. During the lonely Trial of Silence, Papageno brings out his magic bells to accompany a song in which he sings about his lovesickness. For modern productions, the magic bells part is usually performed on a celesta. However in Mozart’s time it would have been played on a keyboard glockenspiel. This consisted of a set of chimes that were connected to an organ manual, allowing more versatility than was possible with a set of mallets.

 

  • John Philip Sousa (1854–1932), The Liberty Bell March – There are some tubular bells used in Sousa’s Liberty Bell March. But the reason it earned this name was because Sousa’s band manager happened to have recently seen a picture of Philadelphia’s favorite bell, the Liberty Bell, shortly after this piece was written. The march has been used in a number of Presidential inaugurations over the years, but it’s probably most famous because of its use as the theme music to the British television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus from 1969 to 1972. The Monty Python gang only used the march because the recording happened to be in public domain. This way, they could “silly walk” their way around any British copyright laws.

 

  • Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), Boris Godunov: Coronation Scene – Boris Godunov is Modest Mussorgsky’s only opera, but also his masterpiece and one of the most performed Russian operas worldwide. Based on a play of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, Boris Godunov also has the bizarre distinction of being one of the most heavily edited operas of all time. VERY few recordings exist without cuts or editing, or are even sung in the original Russian. The Coronation Scene is one of the opera’s most memorable moments and occurs as the final scene of the opera’s prologue. As we heard, the chorus is preceded by an instrumental introduction which is indicative of ringing bells. Real church bells are then heard as a crowd gathers in the cathedral square of the Moscow Kremlin to witness the procession of the Czar and sing his praises.

 

  • Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), The Bells Sergei Rachmaninoff’s choral music is often overlooked in favor of his famously demanding piano works. However, he wrote a great number of choral works, the largest of these being The Bells, a cantata based on a poem of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe. The work is split into four movements—just like in Poe’s poem—with each movement evoking the distinct sound and mood of various bells. The first movement describes the joyful sound of silver bells on sleighs and the “world of merriment their melody foretells!” Later movements evoke the “The Mellow Wedding Bells,” “The Loud Alarm Bells,” and “The Mournful Iron Bells.” This work in particular seems to draw some musical parallels from the works of Rachmaninoff’s mentor Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, including Tchaikovsky’s “Pathètique” Symphony and the opera The Queen of Spades.

 

  • Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), Spiegel Im Spiegel – Beginning in the mid 1970s, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt began writing in a style that he referred to as Tintinnabuli. Tintinnabuli, as you may have guessed, is related to the onomatopoeic term “tintinnabulation,” which means the ringing of bells. Like “ting” or “tinkle,” tintinnabulation derives from the Latin word tintinnare, which itself is an onomatopoeic term meaning to ring or jingle. It’s used famously in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Bells: “the tintinnabulation that so musically wells / From the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells.” For Arvo Pärt, tintinnabuli means the continuous tolling of a major triad, accompanied by stepwise motion to create a calm, minimalist landscape. In this work Spiegel Im Spiegel (which means “Mirror in the Mirror”), you can hear the tintinnabuli style clearly in the piano. Around this piano tolling, the violin explores the major scale, creating a musical mirror that reflects over a single pitch.

 

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), A London Symphony – As originally written in 1912, Vaughan Williams’s second symphony was supposed to be an example of absolute, non-programmatic music. But Vaughan Williams couldn’t help but add a little character to it. While it doesn’t quite tell a story, the symphony does evoke various scenes from his hometown of London (hence the name “A London Symphony.”) Various movements represent sounds from Hampstead Heath, Bloomsbury Square, or from Big Ben (which is not the clock, but rather the bell inside of the clock tower in Westminster). In the first movement, the harp quietly plays the “Westminster Chimes” (otherwise known as “Westminster Quarters” or “Cambridge Chimes”). These chimes were likely written by William Crotch, a student at Cambridge University in 1793, as part of a set of variations he wrote on the tune “I Know My Redeemer Lives.” Today, these chimes are rung by Big Ben, and countless other clocks and door bells.

 

  • John Tavener (1944–2013), The Last Sleep Of The Virgin (A Veneration for String Orchestra and Handbells) – John Tavener’s works are often deeply religious in character, and while they have a twentieth-century sound, they are also lyrically melodic and draw on the modal harmonies of the early Christian church. All the same, it would be hard to mistake his music for that of sixteenth-century English composer John Taverner (with an “r). This piece combines ambient drones from a modern string orchestra with a handbell choir ringing out chant melodies that date back to the medieval church. The handbell choir is itself an ancient ensemble. However, unlike the modern handbell which uses an interior clapper and a handle for ringing, the medieval bell choir used large wooden frames from which bells were suspended called bell trees. Rather than swinging the bells, the player would use a set of wooden mallets padded with leather to strike the outer surface, chiming out the chant melodies.

  • Marin Marais (1656–1728), La Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève du Mont de Paris (“The Bells of St. Geneviève”) – During the reign of Louis XIV, performer and composer Marin Marais was considered to be the greatest of all French viol players.  His teacher, the acclaimed Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, claimed that after six months of tuition, he had nothing left to show the young prodigy.  By the age of twenty-three, Marais was appointed by the King to the post of ‘Ordinaire de la Chambre du Roi,’ a position that required him to serve at court for only six months out of the year, leaving the rest of his time free to compose. Unlike Italian musical tastes, which favored instrumental forms like the sonata and canzona, the French preferred programmatic music and character pieces. Many of Marais’ compositions followed this preference. The Sonnerie for example, is built on a three note motive which recalls the tolling bells of the Abbey of St. Genevieve, a famous monastery in Paris.

 

And just for fun…

  • Frank Loesser (1910–1969), Guys And Dolls, “If I Were A Bell” – “If I Were A Bell,” from the 1950 musical Guys And Dolls, became a jazz standard thanks mostly to Miles Davis, who included it as the lead track on his 1956 album Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet. (featuring the all-star lineup John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones). Guys and Dolls was already a hit when Davis recorded it. Written in 1950 by Frank Loesser, the musical was based on the short stories of author Damon Runyon. Runyon wrote colorful tales of the Prohibition Era, featuring ne’er-do-wells with names like Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet, and Nathan Detroit. His story “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” is the central story of Guys And Dolls, where a gambler named Sky makes a bet he can seduce a missionary named Sarah Brown. It’s Sarah who sings this bell-ringing song, after experimenting with alcohol (and love) for the first time.

For more ringing and dinging, check out our bell podcast!

Music Heard On This Episode

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