Chimes, and How They Are Rung

No musical instruments have been more intimately connected with the daily life of the great mass of men than hells. Our factories, schools, ships, houses, churches, all require them. Indeed, they have almost ceased to be regarded as musical instruments at all,— instruments which probably yield to none in the delicacy of skill required to produce them. Except when grouped in a peal or chime, they are now generally thought of as mere mechanical contrivances ; necessities, not luxuries. Entirely different, however, is the popular feeling in regard to chimes. These have a deeper hold upon the heart of the people than ever, and their number is rapidly increasing throughout the country. The historical side of bells, and the inscriptions and superstitions connected with them, are well known, or within easy reach of all ; but there are very few people who know or are able to find out what a chime really is, or how one is rung, since nothing definite or complete on the subject has as yet been published.

Two things are absolutely necessary for an approximately perfect chime: first, as may he learned from any dictionary, the hells must be tuned to each other ; but secondly, — a matter of far greater importance, and one entirely ignored, if not unknown, — each hell must be tuned to itself. Then, again, the number of hells must he considered. Upon this point there is a wide divergence of opinion. In this country a set of bells not less than eight in number, and arranged in the diatonic scale, is considered a chime. Any number less than eight is usually said to constitute a peal. In England any number of bells when played by one person constitutes a chime ; when played by several persons, a man to each hell, or by machinery, the set is generally termed a peal. From an American point of view we may accurately define a chime as a set of bells not less than eight in number, and arranged in the diatonic scale, each bell being approximately true to itself and to the others.

The first requisite for a chime is, then, that each bell shall, in technical terms, he true, or, in other words, he in harmony with itself. This means that a bell must yield a note the exact pitch of which any ordinary musician can at once determine. This tone has been regarded as a combination of several tones which exist in every bell, and are termed the “ octave,” “ quint,” and “ tierce.” If these three tones harmonize, the bell is supposed to be true, and the note given is the “consonant” or key note. To obtain the octave of any bell it is necessary to tap it on the top, just at the curve. Tap it one quarter’s distance from the top, and the quint or fifth of the octave results. Two quarters and a half lower we get the tierce, or the third of the octave. Tapped above the rim, where the clapper strikes, the octave, quint, and tierce sound simultaneously, giving, as stated above, the consonant or key note of the bell. These three tones are the only ones spoken of in any work as belonging to bells, and they are also the only ones mentioned as a test of a bell. But since the most important note of the bell —the “drone,” as it is called — is entirely overlooked, this test is at most only interesting, and not at all reliable.

The fact is that every bell gives two prominent notes, — one the key note, and the other the drone or “ hum ” note, which in foreign bells is usually an octave, and in American bells a major or minor sixth, lower than the key note. This note always vibrates longer than the key note, and hence the same bell at times seems to give a tone entirely distinct from the key note. That is because at one time the key note alone is heard (usually at a considerable distance), while at another only the drone is heard; and since the drone vibrates the longer, it frequently impresses the ear, especially when near, as the fullest or dominant tone of the bell. Hence an 15-flat bell often will be heard in the key of E-flat, or an A-flat be heard as an F bell.

The harmony of the bell depends, therefore,almost entirely upon the drone, and the best test of a bell is the impression it gives the ear ; while the fact remains that if the drone does not harmonize with the key note the bell seems harsh and discordant. The only upper notes, or “ over tones ” as they are called, which a bell gives are the third, octave, twelfth, and fifteenth ; but the harmony of the bell does not depend so much upon these as upon the drone. This is the essential thing. Many bells are, however, only slightly sharp when cast, and may be thoroughly tuned and made harmonious by filing on the inside at the tierce till the desired tone results. Bells which need no filing are called “ maidenbells,” and in England especially are highly prized. It may thus be seen what a delicate and complex instrument a true bell is. A set of these true bells constitutes, as has been explained, a chime.

It used to be thought that the best bells were made in Belgium. Certainly the art of making them there culminated in the eighteenth century. In the opinion, however, of many persons competent to judge, it has declined somewhat in that country. A verification of this may be found in the fact that the tenor (or lowest) bell of a peal recently made by one of the most celebrated firms of Belgium, and presented by a gentleman of New York, from whom the writer has obtained much valuable information, to one of our oldest and most prominent colleges, has been cast aside as utterly unfit to use ; and that, too, in the face of the fact that a professor of the University of Louvain certified, at a charge of one hundred francs for his services, that “ each bell was in harmony with itself and the others.” There is no reason why just as good bells may not be procured in this country as abroad. We have ns excellent copper and tin, and equally skillful workmen ; and the art of giving the proper shape and density to the metal is as well known here as there.

Bells may be rung in two ways: first, by swinging them with rope and wheel; and secondly, by striking them either upon the outside or inside with hammers, the bell itself being stationary. In England the former method of rope and wheel was almost universally adopted, requiring a man for each bell. From this method we get that interesting and peculiarly English kind of chime music known as the “ changes,” which gave England the name of the Ringing Island. In Belgium, however, the stationary method was used. Chimes played in this manner were rung by one person and were called carillons, because the Italian quadriglio, or quadrille, “a dreary kind of dance music,” was the first ever played upon them. To play upon carillons the performers used an instrument known as the “clavecin,” a kind of rough key-board arranged in semitones. Each key was connected by wire or rope with a hammer, which struck the bell when a sharp blow was given the key with a gloved fist. This machine was necessarily extremely crude at first; and since chimes have never been played half so well as in the days of this invention, it is all the greater wonder that the art ever progressed at all. Recently some great masterpieces in chime music have been found, which were composed and played at Louvain in the latter half of the last century, by the most skillful and wonderful chimer who ever lived, Matthias van den Gheyn. No one in Europe or America can now be found who is able to play this music, which rivals in the depth and subtlety of its composition some of the finest works of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. Hence the inference is that the art of playing carillons has sadly declined, with small prospect of ever recovering the lost ground.

Another machine for the automatic ringing of chimes, and used considerably in England at the present day, is known as the tambour, or “ barrel.” It consists of a large wooden cylinder, upon which a certain number of pegs are arranged. As this cylinder revolves, the pegs loosen levers which allow the hammers to fall upon the bell. This contrivance, formerly very crude, is arranged on the same principle as the familiar music-box, and operates in nearly the same manner. In recent years it has been greatly improved in various ways, and is now found in all countries, though very seldom used in America. It is specially adapted to large chimes — from twenty to forty bells—where there is need of clock-work to ring them. The art in this kind of chime-ringing consists merely in the skill of arranging the pegs in their proper places and to the proper number, so as to produce the desired effect.

By far the most interesting of all methods of ringing is the English one of ringing the “changes,” upon which many books have been written with the view of thoroughly explaining the art and teaching it to beginners. To ring these changes demanded unusual skill, acquired only after long practice. It was considered a high honor to belong to a company of skillful ringers. Indeed, it is mentioned as a matter of great interest how college students — presumably before the days of cricket and boating — used to take trips from town to town, ringing these changes and “ amusing the people with their strange antics.” Changes are nothing more than the ringing of a set of bells, three or more in number, in every possible order without repetition. Thus three bells may be rung in six different ways without any repeat, four in twenty-four ways, five in one hundred and twenty, and so on; till with ten bells we have 3,628,800 changes, which would require one year and 105 days of constant ringing to complete the peal. Twelve bells would take over thirty-seven years to complete it. In fact, changes are based upon nothing more than that simple branch of higher algebra known as “ combinations.” The art of ringing consists, first, in the skill of ringing a swinging bell correctly; and secondly, in knowing when and how to alter the course of the striking. The different ways of ringing, or rather the different changes, are known by such mysterious names as “ plain - bobs,” “ bob-triples,” “ bob-majors,” “ bob-minors,” “grandsire-triples,” “ grandsirebob-cators,” etc., while such terms as “ hunting,” “ dodging,” “ snapping,” are only a few of the many terms connected with the art. So far as the writer is aware, this method of ringing has been rarely, if ever, used in this country.

Our chimes are generally rung by a machine somewhat akin to the clavecin used in carillons, consisting of a series of levers or handles arranged in order of the scale in which the chime is cast, which when sharply pushed down draw the clapper, by means of a connecting wire, against the side of the bell. The art of ringing in this manner consists in giving sharp, even blows, and also in so breaking up the long notes that the atmosphere shall be filled with regular and constant vibrations of sound. In this last is the secret of successful chiming, one which few of our chimers have yet found out. Contrary to general belief, to ring bells in this manner requires but little muscle and less brains; it being nothing more than a knack, easy for some and difficult for others to acquire.

Experiments have been made with a view of ringing chimes by electricity, the player having a simple piano keyboard, and playing upon it as if it were a piano. As yet, in the opinion of the best bell-makers, these experiments have not been successful, but there is no reason why they should not be so. Fire and other bells are so rung now, and it ought to be only a question of time when chimes shall be satisfactorily rung by this method. What is known to players as the “hand-feeling ” would of course be lacking, but this would be more than counterbalanced by the increased dexterity and steadiness acquired. If this method is successful, the art of ringing will become that of mere piano-drumming, such music alone being played as will not result in discord from the prolongation and mingling of a note with others following ; while, strangely enough, the result will be that chimes will be better rung than ever before. And this, in the writer’s opinion, sums up what is to be the future of chimes and the art of ringing them.

A. F. Matthews.