Classical Music With Bells
1. ‘Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky
Towards the end of this magnificent orchestral piece is a section titled, ‘The Great Gate of Kyiv’ you will hear one of the most dramatic uses of bells. Supposedly representing the bells in the tower of the Great Gate, these ring through the orchestral texture with brilliance and splendour.
It brings this extended journey around an imagined art gallery, to an earth-shattering conclusion.
To place this finale in context, it comes after a promenade around pictures by the artist Viktor Hartmann. The two artists found much common ground that centred on their Russian cultural heritage and the music shortly followed.
The ten pieces that form the suite were originally composed as show pieces for piano. They are notoriously technically difficult, intended for pianists with flawless techniques. There are many different orchestrations of the Pictures with the most frequently performed that of Maurice Ravel.
His electric orchestration of Mussorgsky’s music brings these character pieces to life in a way that few other orchestrators have managed to do.
2. ‘The 1812 Overture’ by Tchaikovsky
Bells are often associated with celebration and triumph. In the final defeat of Napoleon’s army in the famous 1812 Overture, we hear the bells ring out to mark the defeat of the invading army and the victory of the Russians.
This was a truly monumental and historic success for the beleaguered Russians who must have felt that defeat was almost inevitable against such a terrifying foe. The overture is one of the most uplifting, inspiring pieces to spring from the pen of Tchaikovsky.
It is perhaps better known for the canons that sound during the piece but the bells are of equal importance not only to the historical context but also for the vital sonority they bring at the end of the work.
As the chorus sings out victoriously the bells chime in between the phrases leaving the audience with no doubt about the outcome of the battle.
3. ‘Darf ich…’ by Arvo Part (1995; revised 1999)
At two minutes shorter than the Debussy piece above, this is one of the briefest works discussed here. This immaculate score is written to the question ‘May I…?’ It is scored for a solo violin, strings and one bell pitched in C#.
Here is where the necessary bell appears in the music. The part uses the single bell to underpin key structural points as well as to add depth to the timbres in the score. It rings like a barely audible response to the posed question.
In a similar way to the ‘Unanswered Question’ by Charles Ives, we do not know by the end of the composition, if the question has been answered or even if the question was real in the first place.
The composer has offered the following comment about this remarkable piece: “It is like the last sentence of a fairy tale…the story leaves a memory and you cannot tell if it all happened in a dream or reality.”
4. ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ (1830) by Hector Berlioz
This symphonie is the polar opposite of the Arvo Part piece. It is immense in scale and ambition. Audiences and performers alike struggled to understand what Berlioz was trying to achieve in this enormous score.
Many felt the work showed his poor orchestration and compositional abilities. Years later, of course, it is a firm favourite with performers and audiences across the world.
Berlioz utilises the bells (scored for three bells in C and three in G), to startling effect. This effect, dramatic and aesthetically is in part because Berlioz specifically directs the bells to be played off stage.
It creates an unsettling feeling as you are not always able to locate this haunting tolling. It is in ‘The Witches’ Sabbath’ that is the concluding part of this programmatic piece.
This final section is enough to frighten the breath out of almost anyone with its diabolical evocation of this blood-chilling scene. The bells arrive around five minutes twenty seconds into the finale.
What you’ll hear, if you listen with care, is that the bells sound eleven times indicating it is only one hour before midnight.
5. ‘The Bells’ by Sergei Rachmaninov (Op. 35; 1913)
According to the composer, this work he considered to be a “choral symphony”. It’s text Rachmaninov borrowed from ‘The Bells’ by Edgar Allen Poe with a translation into Russian provided by Konstantin Belmont.
It is an ambitious work scored for equally ambitious forces. These include a huge orchestra, three vocal soloists, a chorus, and an impressive percussion section. Here is where we discover many bell-like sounds such as the glockenspiel, the triangle, the celesta, and four tubular bells.
There are four movements each of which is titled with ‘bells’ in it. Here are the titles for each movement:
- ‘The Silver Sleigh Bells’
- ’The Mellow Wedding Bells’
- ‘The Loud Alarm Bells’
- ‘The Mournful Iron Bells’
Essentially, the entire work is a journey from youth to old age. Rachmaninov commented shortly following the premiere of the work that bells had dominated his life and he had taken pleasure and inspiration from their range of tones to create the composition.
There is a deep expression of what it means to be human in this work perhaps more so than any other Rachmaninov work. As it transpires, this was one of Rachmaninov’s favourite compositions and he was not easily pleased.
6. ‘The Eleventh Symphony’ by Dimitri Shostakovich (1957)
Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich wrote extensively for orchestra completing fifteen symphonies in his lifetime. Each of these is an intricate reflection of his experiences in Russia under the Stalinist regime.
As a composer who was high profile, he had to ensure that his music met the expectations of the regime whilst meeting his musical standards. This was a dangerous balance to maintain and according to Shostakovich following the premiere of one of his works, he dreaded the sound of the phone.
He could not even know if the voice on the end would be congratulatory or condemning of his music and this pressure and uncertainty are deeply embedded in his scores.
Unlike the Rachmaninov, this piece does not make use of tubular bells, celesta, or chimes, instead something far more terrifying sounds across the orchestra in the final movement of this symphony.
Shostakovich asks for an alarm bell to sound in the last minutes of this movement (approximately: 1:05:30), and the effect is stark. This is because there is a harmonic clash between the orchestra attempting to reach a harmonic resolution in G major as the alarm bells insistently remain in G minor.