Bells in the orchestra
In the 18th century it was extremely rare to use bells in the orchestra. It is assumed that J. S. Bach was the first to use them. It was particularly in dramatic contexts in opera that the sound of bells was frequently required, but the use of church bells was impractical owing to their size and weight. To solve this problem, substitute instruments were made. A bell with the pitch C2 weighs 20 tons. In some large theater buildings a set of church bells was installed, for example the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, the Grand Opera in Paris and the Dresden Opera.
In the 19th century many attempts were made to make the sound of church bells available to opera and symphony orchestras by means of more manageable instruments. Success was achieved with various metal objects, experiments being carried out with hanging plates, bars, discs and vessels. Long piano strings thickly wrapped and amplified with resonators were also tried out. Many of these experiments took place in Bayreuth (for Richard Wagner’s Parsifal) and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
These efforts had as their aim the combination of two aspects: on the one hand the most accurate imitation possible of the bell sound with its high proportion of overtones; and on the other, a sound with a definite pitch.
The Chinese were already using bells in the orchestra some 4,000 years ago. Musical plates made of metal originated in Asia, too, where they have been used from time immemorial and are still hugely important today. In Europe they were first used at the end of the 19th century, initially in the theater. Later on they were adopted by opera and symphony orchestras as a substitute for large bells.
In the 20th century whole sets of tuned plates have been arranged either chromatically or according to the composer’s specifications. For Pierre Boulez’s musicalization of Mallarmé Pli selon pli (1962) a set of plates with a compass of two octaves (C2–C4) was made. Today, bell plates with a range of three octaves (C2–C5) are available. Those with the best sound are made of bronze; at the same time, though, these are also the heaviest and the most expensive.