Bell-ringing has been around for millennia. Small wonder that Messiaen, in works like Couleurs de la Cité céleste, uses it to convey timelessness. But not all composers have pursued that path. After all, the ringing of bells is a familiar soundtrack to ceremony and, by extension, to the spectrum of accompanying emotions with which ceremony is associated: joy on one side; mourning on the other. It is ripe with symbolic potential.
The bells of Zlonice, where the adolescent Antonín Dvořák studied, inject his First Symphony with grandeur. Purcell radiantly gives thanks in his ‘Bell Anthem’, and the pealing Kremlin bells in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov make a joyous cacophony of the coronation scene, setting up Tsar Boris for a tremendous fall.
Cacophonous, too, are the tolls of the Witches’ Sabbath in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, and the finale of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 11, though both these are heavily steeped in dread. Arvo Pärt also explores the darker associations with bells in his lament for Benjamin Britten, but imbues it with his trademark mysticism. And as for Britten himself – he used the bell-like sonorities of the Balinese gamelan to hint at the magical effect of Tadzio’s appearances in Death in Venice. Harnessing the power of suggestion always was one of this composer’s strengths.