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Carillons and Chimes - William Wooding Starmer

William Wooding Starmer, 1866 - 1927, was Professor of Campanology in the University of Birmingham and a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Music, London. He was an organist and musicologist, and a keen proponent of carillon music in the early 20th century. Here is the text of a talk on the subject he gave in 1916.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN SUPPLEMENT No 2120 August 19, 1916 Pages 122 - 123

Carillons and Chimes
How They Are Rung, and Facts Relating to the Making and Tuning of Bells
By William Wooding Starmer, F.R.A.M.
Read before the Royal Society of Arts

FIRST I will deal with the magnificent tower of Malines, which is 320 feet high, and the finest of its kind in the world. Although not completed according to the original design, which provided a spire (the total height of the tower and spire being greater than any structure in Europe). I think it will be readily admitted that the tower, as it stands, gains very much artistically by its incompletion. It is perfectly designed for the good disposition of the carillon, and the nature of the surrounding country greatly helps the effect of the bell music and enables the bells to be heard over an extensive area. The height of the bells in the tower, too, is an important factor - the lowest being quite 200 feet from the ground. Then there are no obstructions to prevent the sound from traveling to the farthest limit in any direction. In passing, it may be stated that a carillon should never be less than 100 feet high. Of course, there are many considerations which might modify such requirements, but I doubt whether, under any circumstances, a good result could be otherwise obtained. There must be no immediate reflection of sound about the tower, and there must be no hindrance whatever to the sound traveling in all directions equally well.

The beautiful effects obtained by M. Denyn from his wonderful instrument are made possible by the excellence of the bells, the good suspension, and the satisfactory height at which they are placed.

Next the bells may be dealt with. There are forty five - the reputed weight of the largest being 8 3/4 tons, while the reputed weight of the whole of the bells is 33 1/2 tons. The oldest bell is dated 1480, twenty-six being cast by the famous Pierre Hemony in 1674. The compass is four octaves, less one note. Many of the bells are of great antiquarian interest, and the ornamentation in some instances is very fine.

The uses of bells in this country and the special requirements of the bells when made and hung for the purpose of change-ringing, have caused variations in shape and thickness which have proved to be unfavourable to the bell, when considered as a musical instrument.

Many of our bells are poor in tone and inaccurate as to tune. Change-ringing is responsible for the alteration of shape-the shortening of the body - so that the series of harmonic tones has been completely upset, to the detriment of both tone and tune.

In times gone by, instead of improving the method of bell-hanging and the proper adjustment of the balance of the bell, our forefathers indiscriminately treated the bell itself and altered it in such a way as to impair its symmetry, in order that greater ease in ringing might be attained. Now, however, this problem presents no difficulties which cannot be overcome.

A consideration of the greatest importance is the difference in the construction scale in making bells for carillon use and for change-ringing. The following table will show where these differences occurs.

 For carillons For change ringing
 Cwt.qr. Cwt.qr.
12400Middle C400

The reason of the heavier weights in the smaller bells of the change-ringing scale is to prevent them being swamped by the larger ones, and, for the purpose, increased thickness is an absolute necessity. This upsets the harmonic tones more or less, and although the most important ones can be satisfactorily dealt with, at times no tuning can completely rectify the subordinates.

Then, of course, the difference between the methods employed in sounding the bell has to be taken into account. In the carillon the clapper strikes the bell (hung "dead" or "fixed") from a very short distance; consequently no great volume of tone is produced. In change-ringing the bell completes a circle for each blow of the clapper, which thus hits the bell with great force.

Taking these things into consideration it is difficult to make any true comparison between the use of English bells cast on a different scale and operated upon in an entirely different manner and Continental bells made for carillon use, automatic or otherwise.

There is not much to say with reference to bell sounds produced by a mathematical formula in which musical considerations have hitherto played only a small part, although in recent years much attention has been given by composers of peals to the elimination - as far as possible - of changes containing unmusical cadences. It is not possible, however, to get rid of the unsatisfactory musical effect of the finals of some changes.

Far be it that change-ringing should in any way be discouraged; but music played from the clavier raises the bell to a much higher plane and makes the musical expression almost as great in its possibilities as in pianoforte playing. It is difficult to realize how such effects can be obtained by mean s of a mechanism that is of comparatively rude construction. There is much room for improvement in the action-work connecting the clavier with the bells, but there is not the slightest difficulty in accomplishing this.

It is probable that in the near future the action-work will be pneumatic, electric, or both - ensuring such control of expression that the player can use a keyboard identical with that of the pianoforte, thus avoiding the great physical exertion which is now often necessary. With such an action the finger will do what is now done by hand, and the playing of the pedal will be no more laborious than is the case with the modern organ.

The clavier is arranged on the same principle as the manuals of an organ. The keys are made of oak. They are round, being about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. There are two rows of them, the upper representing the black notes of the ordinary keyboard, projecting 3 1/2 inches, the lower corresponding to the white ones and projecting 6 1/2 inches. The pedals are one octave or more in compass. The pedal board is a necessity, because the larger bells require much more force to bring out their tone. The clappers are consequently much heavier, and demand a considerable expenditure of energy to move them. The pedal clavier also greatly increases the resources of the instrument, and permits the music to be played in three or more parts.

The keys are struck with the closed hand, the little finger being protected with a leather covering to prevent injury when playing. As the leverage of the key has to move the weight of the clapper, which in large bells is very considerable, and as the amount of tone produced depends entirely upon the amount of force with which the key is struck, it will easily be understood that carillon playing required a great deal of strength as well as celerity and skill.

The connection between the key and the bell clapper is exactly the same in principle as the tracker action used in organs, iron levers, squares and wires being used in the places of the wooden materials of organ building. On the clappers of the smaller bells springs are fixed to bring them back into their original position quickly after striking. In the larger bells the clappers are too heavy for this arrangement. They have a simple appliance consisting of a chain which is attached to the "flight" of the clapper and passed over a pulley. A weight is fixed to the other end of the chain sufficiently heavy to bring the clapper within a very short distance of the soundbow of the bell, so that the key has only to upset the balance between the weight and the clapper.

The mechanism connected with each key is fitted with an adjustable screw-plate, or other device, by which the tension can be regulated to a very great nicety, and the touch adapted to the requirements of the player.

The bulk of the playing is done on the smaller bells, with only occasional use of the larger ones. The reasons why this should be so are:
(1) The small bells are more easily manipulated;
(2) The effect of chords is much more satisfactory than on the large bells, owing to the fact that in the latter the harmonic tones are very prominent and frequently interfere with each other when sounded together in a disagreeable manner.
This is not the case with the smaller bells when used in combination, as their harmonic tones are too high in the scale of sounds to inconvenience the ear.

Concerning the chime apparatus, there is much to be said. With us melody only is played, and rightly, too, for as a rule, our bells are much heavier than those on the Continent, which are used for two, three, or four-part harmony. Heavy bells, especially when the notes are near together, would be unbearable in combination, because their harmonic tones would greatly interfere with each other. This interference would be greatly accentuated in any extended compass, because until recent years all sets of bells in this country - whether diatonic or chromatic - have been on the ringing scale, which means that they are thicker and heavier than they should be for carillon use. Perhaps this has been unavoidable, as in several instances a specified number of bells in the scale have been hung for change-ringing. It is well to state that it is most undesirable to make bells on the ringing scale for carillon use, and it is equally undesirable to use bells made on the carillon scale for ringing purposes. The demands in both instances differ widely, and the bells cannot be made to serve two purposes satisfactorily or equally well. Until recently this has not been properly understood in England. The late Lord Grimthorpe is responsible for much of the trouble relating to thick bells. He insisted on having all bells over which he had any jurisdiction made on an abnormally thick scale. Experience has shown that on this point he was wrong although his crusade may have prevented many bells from being made too thin.

Our ancient chime machinery is very simple, and consists of a weight-driven barrel, sometimes as large as 3 feet in diameter, generally made of wood, into which pins are fixed on exactly the same principle as in the barrel of a musical box.

The pins in the chime barrel pulled down levers, which lifted the hammers with which they were connected by wires, and released them, so that in their descent they fell upon and struck the bell from the outside.

In passing, I might mention that in mechanical chimes the hammers always strike the bell from the outside.

Of course, in such a machine the barrel had to do all the work. It was satisfactory so long as the requirement was merely the playing of a regular succession of notes of equal value at a moderate speed-a simple hymn tune, or the like. But as there are very few melodies of real interest which come within these limits, particularly as regards secular tunes, more elaborate airs, consisting of unequal notes, mixed long and short note values, groups of short notes in quick succession, etc., were set on the chime barrel. Such demands had the effect of obliterating everything in the shape of correct time in the rendering of the music, because the chime barrel with the same motive power had to play, perhaps, four notes in the same time as one which preceded the group of four and two which followed, e. g., "Rule Britannia."

As you can well understand these unequal demands made the speed of the barrel very irregular, with the result that one bar was played at a quicker or slower time than another. This made the musical effects of many chimes very unsatisfactory, and, in not a few instances, quite grotesque. The fault was in trying to make the mechanism do what it was incapable of, and for a time, no doubt, this tended to mar the popularity chimes had gained.

About fifty years ago improvements in chime mechanism were made by Messrs. Lund and Blockley. The general principle was good but certain parts of the machine were too weak to bear the strain of the very heavy driving weight used.

Other improvements were made by Messrs. Gillett, of Croydon, who erected their first carillon machine at Boston parish church in 1868. The particular advantage of their machine is that it divides up the mechanical operations. A separate movement is fitted to raise the hammer-levers into action immediately after they have fallen and struck the bells. When raised into position they are prevented from falling by a spring trigger, which can be released by the slightest touch. The only work the chime barrel has to do is to release the triggers, so that the demand on the barrel is reduced to a minimum.

The most recent invention in our carillon machinery has been made by Messrs. Smith and Sons, of Derby. It differs from Messrs. Gillett's machine principally in the subdivision of the driving power.

Each hammer, or set of hammers, has its own special mechanism driven by a separate weight instead of the motive power required being derived from one source, as is the case with other machines. Consequently the weights are so adjusted that the driving power is at all times adequate for the proper working of the hammers, individually and collectively. I mean that, however great the demand is, it never makes the smallest difference in the efficient working of all the parts, thus securing perfect time in the playing of the tunes. This is a decided advance, and with such a mechanism almost anything can be played, although it is undesirable to set very quick tunes on the chime barrel.

At Malines, in some instances, there are as many as four hammers to each bell, so as to ensure the quick repetition of the note when required. The connections there between the chime-machine and the hammers are made by means of wires, squares, etc., just as in our own chimes. These vary from 15 to 40 feet in length. Although the connections are in appearance somewhat clumsy, they require a very nice adjustment.

The chime-barrel is made of gun-metal, with two rim cogs and a center guiding cog. It was cast in 1733, completed in 1734, and is 5 feet 3 inches in diameter. The driving weight is 1 ton 6 1/2 cwt., being about 4 cwt. in excess of that which is absolutely necessary for the purpose. The chain to which the weight is attached is over 90 feet long, and is wound round an oak drum fixed on the axle of the chime-barrel, so that the weight-force exerted is direct - i. e., there is no gearing.

The chimes are set twice a year - at Easter and in October - and as the barrel is a permanent part of the mechanism the chimes can only be altered by a rearrangement of the studs. This takes about four days to do. There are no interchangeable barrels such as we have in England - a disadvantage; but against this must be set the greater accuracy of the rendering of the music obtained by using a large barrel, and by providing such generous driving power.

The Malines chimes play no less than eight times during the hour ; a short flourish at each half quarter, a short piece at the quarter before and after each hour, a longer piece at the half-hour, and at the hour a piece of still greater length. The hour is struck as in England, but the hour to come is announced after the half hour on a smaller bell than that used for the hour strike.

In our country many of the disgusting exhibitions we are forced to listen to, and which in many instances set people against chimes, are the result of gross carelessness and inattention to the proper upkeep of the chime mechanism. In many instances, when chimes are put in a church and set going, there seems to be a general idea that they will work for the next century without any attention whatever. If mechanical chimes are to be successful they require very frequent attention and regulation. The chimes at Malines could never be so satisfactory if it were not for the fact that they are under the constant care of an expert specially employed to look after them, and who almost lives in the tower.

It is not so long ago that our bells and belfries were allowed to get into a very disgraceful state. Now, happily, this is utterly changed; but I regret to say that chimes, generally speaking, are grossly neglected.

The adjustment of the hammer connections and the regulation of the different parts require just as much care and attention as the action of a pianoforte to ensure the most satisfactory results and to prevent the extravagant wear and tear of the mechanism caused by neglect.

In conclusion, I cannot do better than repeat what I have already said on many occasions when lecturing on this subject. The carillon with clavier is the finest musical instrument in existence for educating the people in and cultivating their love for folk-songs and in teaching them the great melodies of their fatherland ; for the music best suited to the carillon - excepting music specially written for the instrument - includes the folk music which has successfully stood the test of time.


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