American Chimes

Chimes in nineteenth-century American churches rang out hymns to their communities to praise God and to make the Sunday services more jubilant. Seems logical, right? Bzzz. Wrong. (That was my “error buzzer” there, did you see that?) According to Percival Price in Bells & Man,* this was not the primary aim of these instruments consisting of up to twenty-two tuned bells. Instead, the chimes that regaled many communities in the United States sought to encourage attendance to its particular church. The denominations of Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, and Christian Scientists were all competing for the hearts and minds of the community members through their music. It’s a cynical view of bells in the New World, and what’s more interesting is that Price sets up this rather capitalist use of bells in comparison to the pure intentions of European bell ringers. The full quote reads:

The purpose of this [chime ringing] was not to praise God, as the performances of Jan van Bevere at Dunkirk in the fifteenth century were credited with doing, nor was it to make festive occasions more festive, as was the aim of most hand-played chiming in western Europe at that time; it was rather, in a free market of competing churches, to draw people to a particular one.

So no politics behind bell ringing from fifteenth-century or nineteenth-century European churches? Even though the church and government were intertwined for centuries? I would have to respectfully disagree. The politics of bells in Europe is a post (or several posts) for another day, so we’ll just leave this disagreement right there for now.

Chimestands are played by one person, using their fists, and sometimes feet too, to depress large levers. Each lever is attached to a clapper inside a different bell. As the player depresses the key, the clapper strikes the bell.

The bells are tuned, either chromatically (all the notes within a particular range) or diatonic (only certain notes within a range, such as the white keys of a piano), so that melodies can be played.

The mechanism was often clumsy and slow. Think “Amazing Grace” rather than “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” (Link to the exceptional chime at Cornell University. It is nimble, for one, and it has pedals, which many do not.) A strong force was needed to sound the bells. The levers had to be grabbed and pushed down, hard. Price likens the action to pushing down a wooden pump handle to draw water from wells. Not much room for musical subtleties for some of these chimes, it seems, but then the idea was apparently to make the hymn recognizable and audible across the entire community. It was an advertisement that plants the hymn tune in the minds of the listeners to induce them to come to church.

* Percival Price, Bells & Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 206.

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