The View from the Belfry: European Bell Ringing Up-Close

London's Church of St. Magnus the Martyr
London’s Church of St. Magnus the Martyr in a painting by Frederick Edward Joseph Goff

Today’s post is in honor of the late musicologist Karl Haas, host of Adventures in Good Music, the nationally syndicated radio program which aired between 1970 and 2007. The Story of the Bells, broadcast on Christmas Eve, was one of Haas’ most popular episodes. It provided listeners with a sample of the varied and distinctive sounds of bell ringing in cities throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Here at The Listeners’ Club, we’ve returned to bell ringing at Christmas. (Here are posts from last year and the year before). Continuing that tradition, let’s climb into the belfries of a few of Europe’s most famous churches for an up-close view:

Change Ringing at St. Magnus the Martyr

We’ll start with a spectacular example of change ringing from the Church of St. Magnus the Martyr in the center of London. This style of bell ringing, which  emerged in England in the seventeenth century, requires great precision. Tuned bells are rung in a series of mathematical permutations which produce a set of patterns. As this documentary points out, ten bells could produce over three million unique combinations!

The Church of St. Magnus the Martyr was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (architect of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral) and built between 1671 and 1687. A previous church on the location was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. As the historic view above shows, the church, along with neighboring spires and Nelson’s Column, once dominated the skyline. Now, the church is surrounded, and almost obscured, by anonymous office blocks constructed after the Blitz.

The Guild of St. Magnus rings the bells every Sunday around 12:15:

A mist hung over the river, deepening the red glare of the fires that burnt upon the small craft moored off the different wharves, and rendering darker and more indistinct the murky buildings on the banks. The old smoke-stained storehouses on either side, rose heavy and dull from the dense mass of roofs and gables, and frowned sternly upon the water too black to reflect even their lumbering shapes. The tower of old Saint Saviour’s Church, and the spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant-warders of the ancient bridge, were visible in the gloom; but the forest of shipping below the bridge, and the thickly scattered spires of churches above, were nearly all hidden from the sight.

-Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist 

Frankfurt Cathedral

For a comparison, here is what it’s like to stand in the belfry of Frankfurt Cathedral, home to Germany’s third largest bell ( weighing 11,950 kg. and sounding on the pitch, E). Each bell enters individually, adding up to a mighty chorus. As Karl Haas said, “a sound which leaves no room for human voices.”

Salzburg

Here are the nine bells of the Franciscan Church in Salzburg:

…and bells remembered…

John Luther Adams’ 2005 composition, …and bells remembered…

The Oceanides: Sibelius’ Ambient Tone Poem

The Oceanides, Op. 73

When you think of ambient concert music that conjures up vast sonic landscapes, the name John Luther Adams may come to mind. Adams, an American composer and longtime resident of Alaska, was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral work, Become Ocean, premiered by conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in June, 2013. It’s music which unfolds slowly in rich, colorful waves of sound, evoking the eternal power, depth and cool darkness of the awesome bodies of water which cover seventy-one percent of Earth’s surface.

But Adams wasn’t the first composer to create an ambient sonic portrait of the sea. Listen to Jean Sibelius’ tone poem, The Oceanides, Op. 73, and you’ll get a similar sense of murky depths and mythological “Nymphs of the Waves” (the loose translation of the Finnish title, Aallottaret).

The Oceanides emerges from the depths of the orchestra, as rising and falling string lines wander in a daze. Flutes provide a playful splash of color. The dreamy serenity of the flutes’ opening motives would be at home in any hazy New-age composition. And while the motives develop (certainly at a faster clip than in the static Become Ocean), we are left with a feeling of the circular and timeless. In this excerpt, listen to the way the horns resolve, only to quickly move back to unsettled dominant territory and then dissolve into something new.

At moments, there are hints of that other piece about the ocean, Claude Debussy’s La mer, completed eight years earlier in 1905. But beyond a few passing similarities, Sibelius’ tone poem feels different than La mer. As with Sibelius’ symphonies, the music spins forward and develops, yet we quickly realize that there is no ultimate goal, just another icy, slowly changing landscape over an endless horizon. That’s the feeling we get from the long, endless series of waves in Become Ocean. The Oceanides has one climactic moment of resolution that feels strangely similar to the crest of one of Become Ocean‘s sonic waves. From there, the music falls back and we’re left with the unending expanse of the ocean.

  • Find Osmo Vänskä’s recording of The Oceanides with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (featured above) at iTunes, Amazon.
  • The Oceanides underwent a series of revisions. Hear one of Sibelius’ earlier versions, set a half step lower in the key of D-flat.
  • Find John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Browse the Listeners’ Club archive and find other posts featuring Sibelius’ music.

The Sonic Landscapes of John Luther Adams

Composer John Luther Adams
Composer John Luther Adams

Become Ocean by John Luther Adams (b. 1953) has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. The large-scale work for orchestra was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. Music critic Alex Ross attended the premier last June in Seattle. In Listen to This, Ross visits the composer’s home in Alaska. The remote Alaskan wilderness seems to be a strong influence in Adams’s music.

Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony will perform Become Ocean in New York at Carnegie Hall on May 6 as part of the Spring for Music series.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Dark Waves[/typography]
Let’s listen to John Luther Adams’s 2007 tone poem, Dark Waves. Adams adds electronic sounds to the orchestra, creating gradually shifting sonic layers. Consider how the music is flowing. What images come to mind? Here is a live performance by the Chicago Symphony with conductor, Jaap van Zweden:

Find on iTunes

Dark Waves suggests an almost physical sense of motion…the gradual, inevitable power of an endless series of waves cresting and breaking. For me the music is pictorial, like a slowly changing landscape. But, similar to Debussy’s La Mer, it evokes feelings rather than literal images. In the music of John Luther Adams, New Age meets Edgard Varèse and Morton Feldman.

[quote]Together, the orchestra and the electronics evoke a vast rolling sea. Waves of Perfect Fifths rise and fall, in tempo relationships of 3, 5 and 7. At the central moment, these waves crest together in a tsunami of sound encompassing all twelve chromatic tones and the full range of the orchestra.[/quote]

-John Luther Adams

Alaska