January 8, 2016

The Music of Handbells

Unlike an orchestra or choir in which each musician is responsible for one line of the texture, a handbell ensemble acts as one instrument, with each musician responsible for particular notes as sci_bells_chimesr1they appear in the music.

English handbells are tuned, with each bell analogous to a key on a piano. The clapper on an English handbell is on a hinge and moves back and forth in a single direction, unlike a school bell in which the clapper swings freely in any direction. Additionally, the shaft of the clapper is rigid, such that the bell may be held with its mouth facing upward.

Watch video performances of the Philadelphia Handbell Ensemble.

Beyond simple ringing, numerous techniques specific to handbells have been developed, including placing the thumb against the bell while ringing for a staccato sound, striking the bell against a padded table for a quickly dampened sound, gently touching the rim of the bell against a table after ringing to allow the sound to decay in echo-like stages, and using a variety of mallets to strike bells hanging or laid on the table.

The History of English Handbells

Handbells (credit: Flickr user daniellihThe first tuned handbells were developed by brothers Robert and William Cor in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, England between 1696 and 1724. Originally, tuned sets of handbells, such as the ones made by the Cor brothers, were used by change ringers to rehearse outside their towers. Rather than standing for hours in a drafty tower, they could sit comfortably indoors while they practiced the complicated algorithms of change ringing. The handbell sets used by change ringers had the same number of bells as in the towers — generally six or 12 tuned to a diatonic scale.

Handbells were first brought to the United States from England by Margaret Shurcliff in 1902. While some US handbell choirs do use bells made in England, “English handbells” is a reference to the type of instrument rather than the country of origin. The majority of handbell musicians in the United States play bells made either by Schulmerich Carillons or Malmark Bellcraftsmen, both based in Pennsylvania.

The Handbell Musicians of America (link is external) is the North American professional association for handbell ringers and directors. The Philadelphia Handbell Ensemble is a proud member of the Guild.

The Philadelphia Handbell Ensemble’s Instrument

Our ensemble currently plays on six octaves of Schulmerich bells. In addition, PHE plays two octaves of Schulmerich Silver Melody Bells, two octaves of Petit and Fritsen bells, five octaves of MelodyChime® chimes, and the lower sixth and seven octaves of Malmark Choirchime® chimes. A large number of percussion instruments round out our ensemble’s artistic presentation.