What a Joyful Sound Those 15 Young Handbell Ringers from Gotha, Germany Made!

Whenever I’ve heard or seen recordings of handbell music, I’ve thought about giving handbell-ringing a try. It has a distinctive sound, it looks like a fun group activity, and it would be a great new musical skill to acquire. But I had never heard a handbell performance in person. That changed last evening, when we visited Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Westerville to attend a terrific concert given by the handbell choir of St. Augustine Lutheran Church in Gotha, Germany.

 

We’re admirers of all things Teutonic, so when we read about the concert in Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch, we pulled out our German guidebooks and brushed up on Gotha. One of the oldest towns in Thuringia, Gotha enjoyed prosperity during the Middle Ages through trading in cereals, timber products, and something interesting called woad, a plant used to make blue dyes. Later, the town became the capital of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha Duchy, the dynasty from which Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, descended. In 1875, the Socialist Workers’ Party was founded there. Gotha is also a good starting point for a walk in the Thüringer Wald, the famous forest. Following in the footsteps of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, you can experience winding mountain roads, castle ruins, spas and winter sports resorts, and Arnstadt, the town where Johann Sebastian Bach lived. Today, Gotha may be known for its sausages, but after hearing Handglockenchor Gotha perform, we think the choir gives Gotha another claim to fame.

Handglockenchor Gotha was founded in 1987, thanks to the generosity of Lutheran handbell choirs in the United States. In 1983, the pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Dayton visited some places in Germany where Martin Luther preached. He wanted to form a partnership and do something special for East Germans, so he led fundraising efforts to purchase a set of Malmark handbells for St. Augustine Lutheran Church in Gotha. Thanks to that generous gift, Handglockenchor Gotha is one of about 25 handbell choirs in Germany today.

In 1987, eight-year-old Matthias Eichhorn was a member of the first choir, which was directed by his mother. After studying classical music in Weimar, Matthias now directs 15 young people in playing 61 bells chiming in six octaves. He also plays double bass in a jazz trio.

Matthias led the choir in selections like “Make a Joyful Sound,” “Old Hundredth” and “Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain.” His own compositions for the choir were especially fun to watch being performed; to change some of the bells’ tones, they were either dunked in water or rubbed with a bow for a stringed instrument. Handbell ringers Johanna and Martin also lent their respective flute- and organ-playing skills in renditions of other selections, while a talented singer joined the choir in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.” Showing exceptional talent, Johanna, two other girls, and Matthias skillfully executed what must be a very difficult arrangement of a Bach fugue for four handbell ringers to play. “Glorious Triumph” fittingly concluded the concert.

This was the choir’s third tour of the United States. Offering concerts in Southern Ohio Synod congregations that have partners in the Synod of Mecklenburg, Germany, the choir performed at Dayton’s Epiphany Lutheran Church and Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Westerville, as well as in Cincinnati, Sidney, Springfield and Zanesville. When the choir returns to Germany this weekend, their bells will stay behind for a time so they can be refurbished. When we left, we gladly deposited a contribution to this worthy cause in a large bell that Martin held.

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