Monday, August 1, 2011

Restoration of Christ Church Bells Boston Massachusetts

By Ralph Adams Cram.

The nineteenth of April, 1894, sixty years after they were pealed for the last time in honor of the visit of the Mar­quis de Lafay­ette to the coun­try he had helped to make free, heard the bells of Christ Church, re-hung and restored to their old condition of prece­dence above all the bells of the re­public, pealed after that fashion for which they were cast one hundred and fifty years ago.

This is more than an episode, - it is an historical event, it may be an artistic epoch; for on that day a distinct art, lost for a century so far as the United States was concerned, came again into existence. The movement so generated is spreading rapidly, and in the course of time it may be that not only will the noble art of bell ringing take its place once more in this country as an adjunct of Christian worship, but something may be relearned of that lost art, lost in a measure in England as well as in Amer­ica, the very noble art of bell casting.

It may seem to some unjustifiable to speak in this fashion, to some who call to mind the thousands of bells that yearly are hung in church towers, who remember the scores of churches where "chimes" are rung weekly or daily; but one can, nevertheless, say without fear of contra­diction that bell casting is in many re­spects a lost art, and that scientific bell ­ringing in the United States is a lost art as well.

The bells of Christ Church, as they were found last year, prove this beyond a doubt, if proof were needed. Here was a ring of bells, the first cast for North America, the most perfect from a campanological standpoint, so hung that they could not be rung, and insulted by being employed merely in a system of chiming, which is to true bell ringing what a child's drumming on a pianoforte is to the art of a Paderewski. And in all the United States there was no chime of bells that could approach this in the point of small variations in weight, in homogeneity of metal, in carrying quality or in musi­cal tone; neither was there a single ring of bells properly hung and properly rung on the entire continent.

The art of campanology is delicate, in­tricate and subtle. It begins with the first steps toward the casting of a bell, it considers every detail of its contour, its weight, the thickness of its parts, its composition, every detail of its hanging and adjusting, every detail of its ringing. Many of the secrets of the art are still preserved by the bell ringing guilds in England, but certain processes which deal with the creation of the bell itself are absolutely lost. For example, one of the most important factors in the creation of a perfect peal is the point of the difference in weight between the tenor, or heaviest bell, and the treble, or lightest, in the octave of a diatonic scale. In the Christ Church peal the tenor bell is but two and a half times the weight of the treble; but modern founders of the highest repute, both in England and Belgium, have adopted in their peals a scale in which the tenor bell weighs at least three and one half times as much as the treble bell. The nearest approach to old results that has yet been achieved in this country is a chime in which the proportion is four to one, while ordinary combinations of bells often reach the extraordinary conditions which exist at Christ Church, Cambridge, where the heaviest bell in the oc­tave weighs eight times as much as the lightest. Such an arrangement, if by courtesy called a peal, is a combination which no ringer would venture to handle, for with so marked a contrast in the weight of the respective bells, the tintinnabula at one end of the octave would be completely over­powered by the deeper vibrations of the heavy bells; whereas there is no perceptible differ­ence in the carrying power of the different bells of this ancient Boston peal, even when heard at a dis­tance of four miles.

The same unfortunate retrogression shows itself in every direction. By abandoning the ancient system of ring­ing for the makeshift of chiming, the no­ble art dropped nearly to the level of a trick, and the craft of bell-casting be­came a trade. Everything was sacrificed in the making of the bell to cheapness; in the hanging of the bell to the capa­city of a blundering sexton; and where once we had great bells leaping through the sonorous air, pouring their tone toward each other from resounding throats and driving it for many miles, where once we had loving ringers, each knowing his bell, each knowing its exact position in its swift revolution at any second to an eighth of an inch, -we now have to endure ill-assorted masses of dull clanging metal swung by ignorant and careless sextons, or hammered by some mechanical makeshift. It is not too much to say, therefore, that campa­nology was, so far as this country is con­cerned, really a lost art in all its branches.

Indeed, so absolutely had its first prin­ciples fallen out of sight that certain abom­inable imitations which, it was claimed, were just as good as bells, and less ex­pensive, have been accepted by the pub­lic with a serene ignorance of their abso­lute wretchedness. Fortunately the most loudly heralded form of these abomina­tions misnamed "tubular bells" has pre­cisely the least sonorousness and penetrat­ing power, so that its steely and dissonant clangor can hardly be heard beyond the block in which it may be placed. One of these bogus "chimes" ("horresco re­ferens") has been recently hung in a church in this vicinity, but fortunately is almost inaudible. Christ Church peal cannot but act as a great object lesson in future; for a comparison of the harsh screaming of the modern substitute with its own mellow song will show very quickly that a steel tube is not a bell, not even a substitute therefore, but simply a grotesque absurdity, to be compared only to an African tom-tom.

Another evidence of the desuetude of the art is shown in the history of the so­ called Columbian bell. Apart from the wicked vandalism which the scheme of this bell involved - the childish destruc­tion of the hundreds of precious and his­toric heirlooms - the alleged method of constructing the bell proved the dead­ness of the art; for into its composition went all manner of heterogeneous ele­ments, metals of every kind, including much silver, if the statements of the pro­jectors of this scheme are to be credited. Now, anyone familiar with ancient bell ­making would have predicted the result of such an amalgam, which was absolute failure. The claim had been made that the silver would improve the tone of the bell, though in a pamphlet printed in 1877 the Meneely founders of Troy had ex­pressly stated that it was a fact that silver added to the amalgam of copper and tin would ruin the ringing qualities of a bell. The false representations made in connection with the absurd Columbian bell scheme led scores of misguided and foolish people to sacrifice their silver and relics. Of course the first bell was a lamentable and utter failure, and another had to be made, from which the sacrificed silver was discreetly eliminated, and though this bell appeared at Chicago to­ward the close of the Fair it was not thought worthy of being assigned a place, and was left upon the ground in the rear of the Administration Building, and when occasionally tolled, its dissonant chords, which could be heard but a short distance away, were even less musical than those of some steel bells exhibited by a Prussian founder. It would be interesting to fol­low the subsequent history of two thou­sand pounds of metal obtained from the wanton destruction of valuable relics, and also of the unfortunate bell itself.

These instances seem to show how the once noble art has ceased to exist, and to indicate as well how great a destiny may be the fortune of Christ Church peal. Properly hung, properly rung, it may bring a recrudescence of a beautiful art. Once more church towers may have a reason for existing, and may contain in their tops, in place of misbegotten and ill assorted bells ranging from "Big Bens" to schoolhouse gongs, perfect and har­monious peals, swinging exultingly on every festive occasion, appealing to culti­vated and refined ears, not tolling dis­sonantly or chiming trivially, "to make the judicious grieve."

Now just a word about tolling and ring­ing. In ringing of course the bell is first raised and balanced with its mouth up­ward, and held ready for the signal to swing off and strike. When the bell is released it falls, the tongue tapping the sound bow on the upper side toward the end of its revolution, and pouring the waves of sound outward, perhaps into the waves of the bell swinging opposite, so that perfect harmony may result from this blending. In tolling, the bell rests rigid, with mouth downward, the tongue being beaten against the sound bow. The sound thus emitted is dull and muffled, and being necessarily driven downward it carries but a short distance. To obtain good effect, then, the bell must be swung, and this requires competent ringers. Now, as it takes some two years for a man to become a proficient bell ringer, it may seem that it must be some time before ringing can become popular or common. Perhaps, but already in Boston the Old Colony Guild of Bell Ringers has been formed with a dozen active members, formerly members of ancient English guilds. From this guild men will be as­signed to such neighboring parishes as may need their services; and so fascinat­ing an art as this cannot fail to draw novices anxious to become proficient masters in this manly recreation tending to the development not only of the phys­ical powers but also of the intellectual faculties. One by one, peals will be hung and manned; and in time, it may be, no state will be without its ringing guild.

Returning now to "the Boston Bells," Christ Church peal, it may do no harm to repeat its history, although now it is gen­erally well known. In the year 1743 a subscription was taken up in England to purchase a peal of bells for the mission in North America, and the commission for casting was given to Abel Rudhall of Gloucester, one of the most famous bell­ founders of England, the representative of a house that had existed for many genera­tions. In 1744 the bells were hung in Christ Church tower, where they were pealed regularly for thirty years. Cer­tain political events with which we are familiar made it expedient for a large part of the parish to transfer its residence to Halifax; and after the close of the war the bells fell into disuse. In 1810 an apparatus for chiming was added, and the decadence began. In 1824 the cage was renewed, and an attempt was made to ring the bells from the lower chamber; but this was a complete failure, and from this moment the bells were used as gongs, that is, they were tapped by their tongues being used as hammers. Certain conditions prove this beyond a doubt. For example, the cage of one of the bells was so narrow that the bell could not possibly revolve in it, and again, the tongues and brims of the bells were al­most unworn.

When the first examination of the bells was made last year, preparatory to re­storing them, they were found in sur­prisingly good condition. Of course the hangings of red oak and the blocks of lignum vita; had gone to pieces pretty badly, but the bells were unharmed and the cage was secure. The labor of re-hanging the peal was of the utmost deli­cacy. Every part of the wood and metal fittings had to be duplicated ex­.". war the bells fell into disuse. In 1810 an apparatus for chiming was added, and the decadence began. In 1824 the cage was renewed, and an attempt was made to ring the bells from the lower chamber; but this was a complete failure, and from this moment the bells were used as gongs, that is, they were tapped by their tongues being used as hammers. Certain conditions prove this beyond a doubt. For example, the cage of one of the bells was so narrow that the bell could not possibly revolve in it, and again, the tongues and brims of the bells were al­most unworn.

When the first examination of the bells was made last year, preparatory to re­storing them, they were found in sur­prisingly good condition. Of course the hangings of red oak and the blocks of lignum vita; had gone to pieces pretty badly, but the bells were unharmed and the cage was secure. The labor of  re-hanging the peal was of the utmost deli­cacy. Every part of the wood and metal fittings had to be duplicated exactly, for the modern and inferior metal hangings; with the bell raised high in the headstock, were not to be considered for a moment, as bells thus suspended "ring false," i.e., the tongue strikes the lower instead of the upper sound bow, while the rate of oscillation is too slow to admit of change ringing. As the work pro­gressed many curious things developed. The bells were found to be a virgin peal, i. e., untouched by the file or chisel to cor­rect the tone; an actual ball bearing axle was discovered in the "ground trucks," made years before the modern ball bear­ing was patented. It was found that since the time that the bells were hung not one material improvement had been effected in the mechanism of suspension and ringing, that in every respect these hangings were superior to any mod­ern patented contrivances. Therefore they were absolutely restored in their original shape and similar materials, and the old hangings preserved as historical relics, one specimen being deposited with the Bostonian Society.

This careful and important work was done by an expert spar maker, under the constant direction of the gentleman to whom Boston owes in great measure the restoration of the bells; and when this was complete, the work of adjustment began. This could only be done by a maker of marine instruments, so delicate is the work of lining up the bells, raising or lowering them in the headstock, ad­justing the tongue, etc.; for a difference of a sixteenth of an inch in the point of impact of the tongue changes the tone of any bell, and may even imperil its integ­rity. This work consumed two weeks; and at the expiration of this time the ropes, which had to be obtained in Eng­land, where only bell ringing ropes are made, had arrived, the Old Colony Guild of Bell Ringers had been organized, and once again the famous bells hung waiting to be rung up, ready to fall in the first crash of harmony which they had created for almost a century.

And just here it may not be out of place to refer to the system of  "change ringing" - which, though now three cen­turies old, is hardly known outside of England, the place of its birth - and to the training necessary to produce a skilled change ringer. Having become familiar with the various parts of his bell, its hangings and its forward and back oscillation upon its gudgeons or axes, he is first taught to  "set" it, i.e., to balance it mouth upward, the ringer standing meanwhile gracefully and without bend­ing the body at the hip, or moving the feet, or looking up to catch the "sally" or colored "tuffing" woven at one point into the rope, which when gently grasped checks the bell in its course, and serves moreover as an index to mark its exact position. In the course of a few weeks he will learn to regulate his bell, so as to be able to strike accurately at both "hand" and "back" stroke, and to manage his hand, and the rope without having to think of the matter. Then comes a course of round ringing in which the bells are rung in regular succession in descending scale, beginning with the smallest, or treble, bell of the diatonic scale, and ending with the largest, or tenor, bell, thus: I, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. He thus acquires the compass or time of revolution and stroke of the various bells, and learns to regulate the beat of his own instrument, modifying the time of its stroke until it sounds at regular intervals with the other bells of the peal. At the same time he begins to acquire what is termed "rope-sight," which is the ability to follow with his eyes the movements of all the ropes, and thus learn to know how much "start" to allow the rope next preceding his own, in order to allow an exact, uniform interval between the notes of the bells striking immediately before and after his own.

The next step in the ringer's education is to advance from round ringing to the varied permutations in the order of the bells constituting "change- ringing," in which each bell changes places succes­sively with the one which has preceded or followed it.

When the path of any individual bell is progressively upward from one to eight, or reversely from eight to one, it is said tech­nically to be "hunting up" or "hunting down," and one of the first rules to be learned at this stage is, that "odd numbers hunt up and even numbers hunt down."

If the path in which the bell moves in a series of changes is not progressively up or down, but is at times retrograde, this zigzag or irregular step is termed "dodging," and one of the chief obsta­cles to proficient ringing consists in the difficulty of knowing just when to dodge, for any error in this respect on the part of a fumbling ringer may demoralize the work of all the others.

When a score of other technical terms have been mastered, such for instance as "place-making," "snapping," "giving lead," "taking from the lead," "making a bob," "coursing," etc., then must be solved the problems presented by the various methods determining the paths of the different bells in their successive changes, and the duty of individual bells, particularly that of the "course" or "ob­servation" bell, for each bell is always a "course" or guide bell to some other. It is maintained by all instructors that the use of hand bells at this stage is best calculated to familiarize the student with the paths of the bells in these changes which seem at first so bewildering when seen in columnar form in the works of the composers; and this practice can of course be conducted by members at their homes, independent of the work done with the tower bells. At the same time valuable information can be obtained by working out or "pricking" the changes on paper, by which exercise the mathe­matical rules which determine the permu­tations of the bells are impressed indel­ibly upon the memory, and the ringer is thus enabled to respond promptly and intelligently to the calls of the conductor.

Of the various methods for producing a series of complex changes none has been found to give more charming com­binations than the so-called "Stedman Principle," the composer of which, Fa­bius Stedman of Cambridge, a member of the Society of College Youths in 1664, and the author of "Tintinnalogia; or, the Art of Ringing," published in 1688, ranks deservedly as the master.

It will be seen from this brief account of change ringing that the science is by no means a simple one, and the gulf which appears between the bungling sex­ton and his tolling gear and a quick ­witted, cool headed, scientific ringer is very marked.

Let us leave this matter now and come to the night when the great "Boston Bells" gave tongue once more after their long silence. Everyone remembers the night of the eighteenth of April, 1894, a date which may come to mark an artistic epoch. On that anniversary of the im­mortal ride of a great bell founder, Paul Revere, who that night assumed himself the function of his own instruments, rid­ing through the gray dawn to awaken a people from the night of colonialism to the white day of nationality, on that an­niversary the great dumb bells, weary of their long enforced silence, were rung up as they had not been for almost a cen­tury, and hung poised, waiting the signal of release. Within the ancient church hundreds of eager men and women sat listening patiently to sympathetic words. Outside, the narrow streets of the North End were decorated as for a festival, Italian flags mingling with the national colors, flaunting together in the night in the midst of lanterns and colored fires, over a dense crowd of curious  sight seers, who one could wish might have known the full importance of the festival they were helping to make. The hours passed. Inside the church, the national hymn, sung by a thousand throats, brought the preliminary festi­val to a close. The doors opened, and the crowd packed around Christ Church grew denser, waiting in silence. The hour was almost at hand which marked the an­niversary of the exact moment of the awakening of a people. Suddenly a dim light flashed in the lowest window of the tower. The light vanished only to ap­pear at the next window above, amid the cheers of the dense
crowd without. And so up window by window,

"By the trembling ladder steep an d tall
To the highest window in the wall,"

where, as the crowd waits anxiously, comes

"on the belfry's height
A glimmer and then a gleam of light,"

and at last, as everyone gazes

"full on his sight A second lamp in the belfry burns."

A breathless pause, and then, released from their century's silence, the great bells fall in an exulting crash, pouring triumphant music into the still night in one cyclonic symphony. For the first time in a century at least the com­plex harmonies of a "Triple Bob Major" sounded on the wind of the new world.

Another glory has been given to Christ Church. Famous for holding the first peal of bells cast for the North American colonies, famous again as the means whereby warning was given to a people to rise in righteous revolution, it should justly add another cause of fame to the honorable list in the past, that its bells have sounded the proclamation of revolu­tion in a noble and forgotten art, ring­ing out the old blundering, clumsy, inar­tistic chimes, the cheap, modern, imbecile imitations, ringing in the new. which is also the very old, the craftily cast, deli­cately adjusted, manfully rung, genuine peals.

Between the coarse combinations of dissimilar bells which are known as "chimes" throughout America as well as in the vicinity of Boston and the deli­cately modulated peals of Christ Church, of St. Michael's, Charleston, and of Eng­land; between the "tubular chimes" and the masterpieces of bell founding, between the hammering of helpless bells by a man working a lot of levers and the swinging of tons of booming metal by a circle of sturdy men, each one of whom is a per­fect artist, - between these poles of good and bad, right and wrong, is the gulf which divides art from blundering, beauty from monstrosity. Now that Christ Church bells have proved this, pro­claiming the rediscovered truth to the four winds of heaven, let us believe the day of makeshift is done, the day of good art rung in.

Originally published in The New England Magazine.  January 1895.


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