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Tubular bells - History

Early history of bells

Asia is the home of cast bells. The Chinese were already using bells of various sizes in the orchestra over 4,000 years ago. In a 2,400 year-old trench in the province of Hopeh in China 65 bronze bells of various sizes (between 12 and 150 cm high) were found. These bells did not have the rounded form usual today. Bells spread from India to the Near East. Archeologists have found specimens of Assyrian origin that are up to 3,000 years old. There is evidence that bronze bells existed as early as the 2nd millennium BC. The first bronze bells of a larger size were cast in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 9th century BC. In early civilizations the sound of bells was thought to avert danger and other trouble. They have retained this reputation, along with their role as a signaling instrument, to this day.


Bells reached southern Europe along the Mediterranean. In ancient Rome small bells (tintinabulum) were used chiefly as signaling instruments, in the Roman baths, for instance. The first bells of a larger size that could be rung were reputedly permitted by Bishop Paulinus of Nola in about 400 AD.

The art of casting bells came to northern Europe as a result of the spread of Christianity and was practiced first by the Celts on the British Isles. Coptic monks in Egypt were the first practitioners of the young Christian religion to master the art of bell-founding, which they did long before 500 AD. Irish monks learned it from them so that by the 5th century there were distinguished bell-founders among their number. The most prominent of these was St. Fortchern of Trim, died ca. 490 AD, the patron saint of bell-founders. It was not until much later that the job of casting bells was transferred from monks to professional founders. The custom of ringing bells in specially built towers began to spread from the 6th century onward.

The Middle Ages and modern times

In the 9th century, hemispherical, ”bulb-shaped” bells were very common. In the 11th century the most common shape was the ”beehive”, and in the 12th century the ”sugar-loaf”. In the 13th century the art of bell-founding finally reached perfection with the development of the ”Gothic” bell, the shape of which reflects the beauty of its tone. At the same time the outside of the bell began to be decorated with ornamentation, embellishments, illustrations and the name of the founder. Since the development of the ”Gothic” bell there have been no further improvements. The art of casting was a jealously guarded secret in the foundries which was passed down from one generation to the next.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the biggest bells were cast, weighing more than 20 tons (the ”Pummerin” in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna weighs 20 tons and sounds a C2). The largest bell ever cast is the ”Tsar Bell” with a weight of 198 tons and a height of 6.14 m. After it was cast in 1733 it was badly damaged (an 11 ton fragment broke off) and was never rung. It is now on display in the Kremlin in Moscow.

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 in 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.

Tubular bells

Tubular bells first appeared between 1860 and 1870 in Paris.

The Englishman John Harrington patented tubular bells made of bronze. Arthur Sullivan may have been the first composer to score for tubular bells in the orchestra, in 1886.
In the early 20th century tubular bells were also incorporated into theater organs to produce effects.

In the modern orchestra

Tubular bells as a substitute for church bells were first used by Giuseppe Verdi in his operas Il trovatore (1853) and Un ballo in maschera (1859) and by Giacomo Puccini in Tosca (1900).

It was in Britain and the USA that tubular bells were first arranged chromatically and in keyboard fashion on a frame, where they form symphonic chimes. This innovation created new possibilities for playing techniques and tasks, which have been exploited and expanded especially by composers in the second half of the 20th century.

Although the original task of tubular bells in opera was to imitate bells, their own timbre has become increasingly valued in modern music. For the formation of melody they have only been used for short melody formulas, in which the notes are damped one after the other. Electro-acoustic tubular bells are also being used more and more often.