The first handbells were simple gourds or shells which were struck with a stick of wood. Eventually they were crafted from clay, wood and stone. Small metal bells can be traced back to 3000 BC, and larger bells were present in China before the birth of Christ. Bells sewn to the garments of priests are evidenced in readings from the Old Testament. Bells have been part of the Christian liturgy for over 1500 years.
Paulinus, Bishop of Nola in Campania, Italy, conceived in 400 AD that a large brass kettle made a resounding din, heard for quite some distance. He hung it above the church and had it struck with a hammer to announce an assembly. Since then, large bells have been called campanoe after the name of the town, and the smaller bells referred to as noloe or nola after the name of the priest.
By the mid-6th century, monks were casting bells weighing several tons each. These particular bells became so popular that, by the 7th century, bells rang throughout Italy. In the 8th century, the first set of tuned bells (called a peal, and evenly-tuned like the piano) was erected in Croryland Abbey, England. By the 10th century, there were bell towers throughout England. By the 12th century, bells were molded in bell foundries, although churches often cast their own bells in an earthen pit beside the church over which the bell would be hung. There followed a more mature understanding of tuning bells, casting them with etched decorations and inscriptions.
Bells, always referred to as “she,” were believed to carry mystical powers and to imbue a town with honor. If a town was conquered, the conquerors would take the bells with them – indicating not only that the town was powerless but also that its liberty had been forfeited. In the Middle Ages, tower bells announced births and deaths, cited victories and defeats, awakened people in the morning, summoned firefighters, heralded the moment when shops should be opened or when it was time to go to market or put the bread in the oven, time to pray, and time to sleep.
It was soon observed that the higher the bells were suspended above the ground, the farther away they could be heard. Holland and Belgium, for instance, became famous for the height of their “singing towers” which contained between 23 and 70 tuned bells, called carillons. These sets were played by a single carilloneur, who sat in front of a keyboard of horizontal levers. When the carilloneur pushed down upon a lever with his fist or foot, wires caused the clapper to strike a bell. The Riverside Church in New York City has a 72-bell carillon, which weighs 200 ton, customized after this fashion.
The British devised their own mathematical system of ringing tower bells, called change ringing. Instead of one person playing all the bells from a keyboard, a rope hung from each bell and a single change ringer pulled one of the ropes to turn the bell and sound it – one bell, one rope, one person! The bells were rung in numerical order from highest to lowest. All bells had to be rung once before the order could restart. Each order is called a “change.” There exists no regularly notated music for change ringing. Rather, the music is graphed as a numerical sequence. Change ringing is musical, mathematical, athletic, and the rhythm of the ringing must be regular and steady. There are still change ringing societies in many Eastern U.S. cities.
Change ringing was noisy – it awakened the entire town, even if just for rehearsal – and the ringing hall (many feet below the suspended bells) was neither heated nor air-conditioned. In the 17th century, change ringers invented hand-bells for practice. “Dumb bells” were also created – bells without clappers – so that ringers could rehearse in silence. The personal hand-bells made beautiful music. In 1673, The Ancient Society of College Youths was organized for handbell ringers.
In the 1830′s, the Peake Family Ringers introduced English handbells to America. In the 1840′s a group of Swiss bell ringers toured America, ringing bells as a novel stunt. Entrepreneur P.T. Barnum sponsored a group of men from Lancashire, England, billing them as – of all things – “The Swiss Bell Ringers.” Barnum had them grow long mustaches, dress in Swiss mountain clothes, and forbade them to speak a word, lest their secret be discovered!
In 1923, Margaret Shurcliff of Boston founded The Beacon Hill Ringers, the first indigenous handbell choir in America. This led in 1937 to her founding the New England Guild of Handbell Ringers. The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers (AGEHR) was formed in 1954, with Ms. Shurcliff as President. In 2004, AGEHR celebrated 50 years of organization.
The unique sound of the handbell derives from its flared conical shape and its percussive mechanism. The basic starter set of bells is two octaves, 24 bells from G below middle-C to G above. Most handbell choirs, however, use three or four octaves; there is one custom set of seven octaves. Much handbell music features additional friendly instruments such as the flute, saxophone, violin, organ or brass ensemble.
Derived from the shape and construction of tuning forks, hand-held tone bars use the same clapper mechanism as handbells (except that in handbells the clapper is inside the casting, and with tone bars the mallet is outside the fork). Handbells are tuned to the twelfth overtone series, which allows its characteristic brightness. Tone bars have a contrasting predominant fundamental, which allows for a deep, rich sound, less decay, and an instrument that is virtually indestructible.