Almost a year to the day since I attended Handglockenchor Gotha’s concert at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Westerville, I finally gave handbell-ringing a try.
Still on the lookout for something fulfilling and fun to do in my free time, I discovered that St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Westerville has a handbell choir. Earlier this week, the choir’s director, Judy Benson, introduced me to handbells, the special technique used to ring them, and the many distinctive sounds they can make.
I arrived a little early so that I could admire the parish’s new church. While we’ve attended Mass a couple of times there since its dedication on June 29, 2011, it’s been so crowded that it’s been difficult to properly appreciate this beautiful place of worship.
The church building is a classical Romanesque design, based on the oblong Roman basilica with round arches, a clerestory, and a dome. A transept added at right angles to the nave makes the building form a cross. Outside, “Jerusalem stone” limestone arches complement the brick walls, while finials and a 20-foot cross atop of the cupola – both made of gold leaf on either aluminum or copper –make the church shine.
Inside the church, I admired the floor, altars, pulpit and baptismal font, all made of Jerusalem stone. The altars are decorated with gold and glass mosaics and feature arches and traditional Greek symbols. The baptismal font features a stone mosaic in a fish design. The capitals of the columns are decorated with a book-and-sword motif that recall the attributes of St. Paul. Many of the 164 windows in the church have been installed with stained glass windows from churches closed in the Cleveland Diocese. The ceiling is painted a dark blue with stars, symbolizing the heavens. But most magnificent of all is the mural behind the altar. It depicts Christ crucified in glory, surrounded by the Father, the Holy Spirit, angels, and a semicircle of saints chosen either because they were Americans or because they represent some of the parish’s ethnic groups. St. Katharine Drexel, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were easy to spot. A classical depiction of a heavenly garden and an idealized heavenly city with some recognizable local landmarks complete the picture.
After spending a few minutes appreciating this stunning environment, I went upstairs to meet Judy. First, she showed me the three large, velvet-lined cases which hold the church’s set of Malmark handbells. The bells are cast in a bronze alloy of 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin. This composition, often referred to as “bell metal,” is about the same as that used for church tower bells; it produces a pure, strong and sustained tone. An imprint on the handle of each bell designates the pitch and octave of that bell. Middle C on the musical staff is handbell C5. The handles of bells ringing accidental notes are black, just like the keys for accidental notes on a piano. Crocheted-covered mallets complete the set.
We got out a few bells and placed them on a long, padded table covered by cloth. Three-inch foam table pads not only protect the bells and prevent them from rolling around, but also enable table damping, a special technique that deadens the sound of the bell after ringing.
Watching Judy, I lifted the bell upright and tilted it back slightly so the clapper rested toward the side of the bell nearest my shoulder. This is called the “ready-to-ring position.” Then, I moved the bell downward and outward in a circular motion, much like pedaling backward on a bicycle. When I got to the outermost point of the oval shape I made with my arm, I flicked my wrist and rang the bell! Then, Judy showed me how to silence, or damp, the bell by pressing it against my shoulder. We practiced a couple of simple exercises and tried playing a few measures of pieces that the handbell choir plays at Mass once a month.
Judy also showed me “Shelly ringing,” or ringing two bells at the same time with the same hand. Other techniques she demonstrated included plucking, which produces a pizzicato or staccato effect when the clapper is plucked, and “martellato” techniques, which call for the handbell to be struck against the padded table.
Naturally, I’ve been reading books and visiting websites to learn more about the history of handbell ringing.
Bells have played an interesting role in history. They’ve been used to frighten away evil spirits, to locate grazing animals, to announce hours of worship, and even to give oaths validity. William the Conqueror instituted the practice of ringing a curfew bell as a signal to cover fires at dusk. Mailmen and muffin men rang bells to attract the attention of those who wanted to post a letter or buy a muffin. Town criers rang bells to share news, while others rang bells to warn of fire or the presence of thieves. Bells play a symbolically significant role in spiritual rituals, including funerals. In fact, bells can be spotted in a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry that depicts Edward the Confessor’s burial procession. Who can forget the sound of Westminster Abbey’s bells tolling and change ringing after the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales?
The history of the handbell that is played today can be traced back to 17th century England. English churches are famous for their tower bells and their change ringing, an exercise in which a set of bells are rung according to a predetermined mathematical pattern. Teams of ringers would “ring the changes” by following patterns that called for a specific order of rings. Depending on the number of bells and the type of ring, these patterns could take hours to complete. The patterns also had clever names, such as “Plain Bob,” “Reverse Canterbury Bob,” “Treble Bob,” and “Westminster Quarters.”
Handbells began as a simpler way for ringers to practice their change ringing patterns. Using a small, more manageably sized group of tuned bells — called a “ring” or a “peal” of bells — that replicated the pitch of tower bells, ringers could practice without disturbing the whole community.
Handbell ringing reached its popularity in England during the 19th century. In 1847, P.T. Barnum was so impressed by a group of handbell-ringing men from Lancashire, England that he arranged for them to go on a concert tour in the United States. Barnum decided that they needed something to make them more interesting, so he dressed them as Swiss mountaineers and billed them as Swiss “campanalogians,” or bellringers. Although they protested that they couldn’t speak Swiss, he assured them that people wouldn’t know the difference between their native Lancashire dialect and a Swiss accent.
In 1923, Arthur Nichols, the bellmaster at Old North Church in Boston, and his daughter, Margaret Nichols Schurcliff, traveled to England. Mrs. Schurcliff was so impressed by the handbells she heard that she brought back a set and invited her friends to come to her home and try ringing them. Eventually, she formed the Beacon Hill Ringers. As ringing groups were established throughout New England, the New England Guild of Handbell Ringers was formed in 1937. The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers was established in 1954, and Mrs. Shurcliff served as its first president. Today, AGEHR just happens to be headquartered in Dayton. What’s more, you can tour the Nichols family’s home on Beacon Hill in Boston.
To learn more about the history of handbell ringing, I read Robert Ivey’s Handbell Ringing: Learning, Teaching, Performing (Agape, 1995) and The Story of Handbells: The History and Art of Handbell Ringing, by Scott B. Parry (Whittemore Associates Inc., 1957). Handbells in the Liturgy: A Practical Guide for the Use of Handbells in Liturgical Worship, by a quartet of authors led by James Frazier (Concordia Publishing House, 1994) and Ellen Jane Lorenz’s A Manual of Handbell Ringing in Church (Lorenz Publishing Company, 1980) gave me a better idea of how handbells are incorporated into religious services. A CD made by the Sonos Handbell Ensemble has been playing in my car this week. And I’ve reserved a copy of The Nine Tailors, since I hear that Dorothy L. Sayers describes change ringing in a scene in that book.