Bells. Percussion instruments which, by virtue of their material and shape, emit, when struck, sounds characterized by many partial tones (not lying in the natural harmonic series). The highest tones fade away almost immediately, while the lowest continue to sound for an appreciable time.
Bells. Percussion instruments which, by virtue of their material and shape, emit, when struck, sounds characterized by many partial tones (not lying in the natural harmonic series). The highest tones fade away almost immediately, while the lowest continue to sound for an appreciable time.
Bell on display at Fort Beauséjour Museum, in New Brunswick
The bells of the cathedral-basilica Notre-Dame de Québec before they were hoisted onto the tower. Photo taken in 1925


Bells. Percussion instruments which, by virtue of their material and shape, emit, when struck, sounds characterized by many partial tones (not lying in the natural harmonic series). The highest tones fade away almost immediately, while the lowest continue to sound for an appreciable time. Most bells are made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, though they may be of other elastic alloys, and some are even made of clay. Generally they are of two shapes: the cup (the common, 'open' bell) and the pod (the closed sleigh bell or crotal). Sound is produced when they are struck with a hard (usually metal) object and then left to vibrate freely. In the case of open bells, this striking object may be an outside hammer (as in stationary clock bells) or a clapper, ie, a rod-like member attached inside (as in swinging bells and carillons). Crotal bells contain a loose pellet which strikes the inner surface of the bell when it is shaken.

No instrument varies so greatly in size as the bell. Cup-shaped bells may range from 5 millimetres to 3 metres in diameter, though a few are over 5 metres in diameter and weigh over 20 tonnes. Crotals vary from less than 5 millimetres to approximately.3 metres in diameter. The larger the bell, the further its sound carries. The low frequencies of very large bells cause them to be heard farther than any other instrument, and they diffuse their sound in all directions.

Bells can be used individually or in scale series, as in carillons, chimes, and handbells. Crotals are chiefly rhythm instruments and sometimes are worn by dancers to emphasize their movements. Crotals of definite pitch have been introduced into orchestral works, eg, Mozart's German Dances and Percival Price's symphony The Saint Lawrence. While some Russian and French orchestras use large, open bells, most others use tubular kinds to suggest real bell sounds. (Tubular bells sometimes are used instead of real bells, in pseudo-carillons or -chimes in church towers, and the instruments may even be operated electronically by keyboards located elsewhere in the building.)

One of the oldest musical instruments, the bell was found in most prehistoric metal-working cultures. In modern times it is found throughout the world. Historically its widest use has been to ward off harm. Tuned series of bells were used first about 500 BC, in Confucian musical ensembles. Large bells intended to be heard far away were used first at Buddhist temples ca 300 AD, and Christians began to use tower bells ca 1000 AD.

Early European explorers found small bells in use in South and Central America, but not as far north as Canada. The Hudson's Bay Company hung large European bells at its trading posts as early as 1683 to call servants in from work and to sound an alarm. It also introduced crotal bells to western Canadian Indians.

Some bells in Canada

An early reference to bells in Quebec appears in the Jesuit Relations, vol. 27 (p 101): 'On the 25th November 1645 a larger bell was placed in the parish church, instead of the small one which was there'. A bell from the France of Louis XIV was given to the church at Beauport, Que, by Robert Giffard in 1666. The first bells of Canadian origin, however, were installed at Quebec in 1664. According to the 18th-century Quebec parish priest Bertrand de la Tour (quoted in E. Gagnon's Louis Jolliet, 3rd edn, p 33), 'At year's end... the Bishop blessed the three first bells of Canada, bells of a kind that had not existed until then: these bells were cast in Canada'. It is known that the parish church of Montreal, which dates back to 1656, had a tower with two bells, but the bells could have been installed later. Bells are mentioned in historical records in 1672 and again in 1683. In 1710 Queen Anne of England gave a church bell to a group of Iroquois living in what became New York State. The bell later was brought to Canada by the Mohawk Princess Catherine (the future wife of Joseph Brant) and in 1786 was installed in a church built in Upper Canada, at what was to become Brantford, Ont. In British Columbia Russian bells arrived via Alaska while Mexican bells were brought by Spanish traders and pirates who ventured that far north. One of the biggest bells in North America (11,240 kg) was installed in the west tower of Notre-Dame Church in Montreal in 1843. This bell, a 'Jean-Baptiste' or Gros Bourdon, cracked six months after it was rung for the first time but was replaced six months later by a second bell of the same size. It is said that 12 men were needed to pull the ropes to ring it. Later electrically operated, and rung only on special occasions, it was still in use in 1991.

In 1862 the Bishop of (British) Columbia received a chime of eight bells as a gift from an English lady, Angela Georgina Burdett Coutts. It was installed in 1865 in a specially built tower of Holy Trinity Church, New Westminster, BC. Some time later, a bell ringers' club was started at the church by Private Howse of the Royal Engineers. All but the tenor (the lowest) bell of this chime were destroyed in the devastating fire of 1898. The surviving bell was used again when the cathedral reopened in 1899. The first bell installed in Vancouver (1873) was placed in the cupola of the Indian Wesleyan Methodist Church, located on the edge of the beach at the foot of Abbott St (later Water St). The City of Victoria was presented with a.9-tonne bell by the Chinese community. Cast in 1627 in China, it originally was the property of the Lew family; it was installed in Beacon Hill Park in 1904.

The three bells in Toronto's old city hall were rung first on 31 Dec 1900 and were still in use in 1991. They weigh 5400 kilograms, 1504 kilograms, and 857 kilograms respectively. The quarter-hour is rung on the small B-flat bell; the half-hour on the middle E-flat bell and the small bell together; the three-quarter-hour by the same two in sequence; and the hour by the large B-flat bell. In 1911 St John's Church in Peterborough, Ont, installed 13 bells which came to be known as the People's Chimes and were played daily until 1967. In October 1977 a Japanese temple bell was presented to Ontario in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Japanese in Canada. The bell, which weighs nearly.9 tonne, was hung in a pagoda located on the west island of Ontario Place.

A bell foundry was established by Carl Stoermer in 1931, at Breslau, Ont.

Bell ringers often practise with small handbells, and in 1991 handbell choirs still could be found throughout the country, among them the Harriet Clark Memorial Handbell Choir in Fredericton, NB, and the group led by Ted Eames of Prince George, BC, which played at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, at the invitation of the Japanese government. In 1988 the Regina Bell Ringers recorded three works composed for bells by Thomas Schudel.

Edward Lye (of the Lye Organ Company) and his descendants rang the bells of St James' Cathedral in Toronto for 96 years (1867-1963). In the latter part of the 20th century bells seldom were rung by swinging them manually; keyboards (both mechanical and electrical) and clockwork systems for the most part had supplanted the rope and the bell ringer. However there was a notable instance of hand ringing at the Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver 16 Jun 1973, when a visiting group of English ringers performed an 'eight-splice surprise major' peal for the first time in North America; it lasted for three hours and three minutes. The beginning and end of this performance can be heard on the World Soundscape Project recording The Vancouver Soundscape (1974, EPN-186). Bells themselves, however rung, have continued to play a prominent role in town and village life, hung in churches, townhalls, schools, and firehalls to ring church hour, noonhour, schooltime, or fire warning. The use of real bells in larger urban centres declined in the latter part of the 20th-century, though, as they were replaced by recordings or electronic systems or simply fell into disuse. R. Murray Schafer noted in the booklet accompanying The Vancouver Soundscape that of 211 churches in Vancouver, only 11 had real bells, 20 others used recordings, and 180 were silent.

Among Canadian musicians who have collected bells are Percival Price and John Wyre. Price became an authority on all aspects of bells and bell-ringing. He donated his collection of items relating to bells to the National Library of Canada in 1982, and it was used for the 1986 exhibition 'Bells through the Ages'. Wyre has put his collection to active use in performances by himself and by the percussion group Nexus, and has composed a work called Bells on a commission arranged by Seiji Ozawa for the Contemporary Music Festival at Expo 70.

Further Reading

  • Gormely, Sheila. 'Tongues of bells tell many tales,' London Free Press, 10 Feb 1962

    'The bellfounders of Breslau,' (Toronto Daily Star) Canadian Weekly, 23 Jun 1962

    Fletcher, Elva. 'His home is a bell-ringer's paradise,' Country Guide, Dec 1972

    Atkinson, Corday Mackay. 'Beacon Hill's Chinese bell,' Victoria Daily Colonist, 15 Jul 1973

    Graham, Melva Treffinger. '"Play, sing and ring," a parish musician looks beyond the keyboard,' RCCO Q, Apr 1978

    Price, Percival. Bells and Man (Oxford 1983)

    Willis, Stephen C. Bells through the Ages (Ottawa 1986)