Quick: What musical instrument do you most associate with Christmastime? You immediately thought of bells, didn’t you? Sleighbells, church bells, the pop song “Silver Bells”…it’s tough to imagine the Yuletide season without them. And in churches all over this country and in Europe, handbell choirs are a real staple of the holidays.
But this wasn’t always the case. Indeed, as traditional as they seem, tuned handbells didn’t appear on the musical scene until the beginning of the 18th century, invented by Robert and William Cor in Wiltshire, England. And they were not introduced into the US until 1902.
Bells had been around for as nearly long as humans had been smelting metal, of course; but the Cor brothers’ concept of forging each bell to sound a particular note on a musical scale, and then installing the clapper on a hinge that only moves in one direction, giving the bell-ringer more control over when that note would sound, was revolutionary in its time. These bells also have the capacity to produce overtones: a twelfth above the fundamental in English-style handbells and a major or minor tenth above the fundamental in Dutch-style bells.
Performing in a handbell choir is more complicated than one might imagine, given that each ringer typically only has two notes to play – one in each hand – on a chromatic scale that can range anywhere from two to eight octaves, depending on the number of bells in the set and the number of musicians. Timing is everything, and bellringers employ a variety of techniques to extend or damp the vibrato of their bells as needed in playing a particular piece.
Where there aren’t enough players available to cover the scales needed, a bellringer may need to become proficient at advanced techniques like four-in-hand and Shelley ringing, in which two or even three bells are held in each hand simultaneously. There’s also a technique known as “weaving” in which players put down a bell after ringing it and reach for another on a table, often having to cross hands with other players like a big family at the dinner table practicing the “boardinghouse reach.”
It’s all a bit mind-boggling to those of us who don’t aspire to master the art of bellringing; but if you’re ready to listen with a new appreciation to those true musicians who have done so, the Christmas season is the time that offers the most opportunities. The First Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in Kingston, more commonly known as the Old Dutch Church, has a fine handbell choir whose music is an intrinsic component of the Church’s annual Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.
The Service itself – which also features Christmas music rendered by choirs, a pipe organ and a brass ensemble – commences at 8 p.m. on Saturday, December 24. A Brass & Organ Prelude kicks things off at 7:30. Everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, is welcome to come and enjoy this very traditional way of ringing in Christmas.
The historic Old Dutch Church is located at the corner of Main and Wall Streets in Uptown Kingston’s Stockade District. For more information call (845) 338-6759 or visit www.olddutchchurch.org.