There are so many different elements to Christmas nowadays: warmth, gift-giving, love, birth of baby Jesus… It seems that everyone has their own idea of what Christmas is all about. But whatever your personal theme of Christmas is, you cannot deny the sound of bells during this beautiful season of the year. We hear it, and see it, everywhere we go. We hear bells being celebrated in the timeless song Jingle Bells; we associate it with sleighs and reindeers. We are greeted by the melodious tolling of the bells as we enter church for mass or service. And we even see bells hanging from the mistletoe. Indeed, there is something magical about a bell’s ring that we cannot fathom or describe. We cannot explain how, but during the Christmas season the music of the bells brings us enormous joy.
The classical composers were, of course, quick to realize the kind of power that bells can bring to a piece of music. The Romantic period saw the emergence of many bell-like instruments, such as the tubular bells and the tambourine, being incorporated into the orchestra. Those composing for the solo piano, such as Chopin and Liszt, devised clever techniques of using the extreme upper and lower ranges of the keyboard to create similar effects. They must had been fascinated by the remarkable potential of the bell to evoke such a wide spectrum of emotions and imagery: happiness, despair, serenity, and even death. I myself share in their fascination, so I thought it appropriate during this Christmas season to share three compositions which really allowed the bell to express itself to the fullest.
My main instrument is the piano, and like many other pianists, I am tightly drawn to one of the Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt’s (1811-1886) most renowned compositions, La Campanella (1851). Liszt himself was drawn to the music of Niccolò Paganini, an Italian violinist who enchanted the crowds with his all-defying skill. (Interestingly, it has been speculated that Paganini’s impossible violin technique may had been granted him by Marfan’s syndrome; it was described at the time that his joints were too flexible for those of a human.) Paganini possessed a passion for employing the extreme high register of the violin, and this manifested strikingly in the finale of his famous Second Violin Concerto. Liszt, inspired by this melody, adapted it to the piano. But he went beyond this—he gave the high notes special treatment. La Campanella means “the little bell” in Italian, and Liszt took great lengths to elaborate and expand on these high notes to write a “song of the bells”. The final result is truly magical. We hear bells ringing in at least ten different pianistic techniques: rapidly pivoting figures, repeated notes, trills, runs, echoing octaves, etc. Despite being a notoriously difficult piece, La Campanella is not just a technical showpiece, but a work of art that was unprecedented in bringing the charm of the bells to the pianistic language.
Leaving the world of piano, we now listen to bells sounded in another genre: the choral symphony. The first movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1943) The Bells, entitled The Silver Sleigh Bells and written more than fifty years after La Campanella, is perhaps the most Christmas-y of the three pieces presented here. Rachmaninoff’s source was none other than Edgar Allen Poe’s enchanting poem The Bells. However, Poe was referenced indirectly, since the text with which Rachmaninoff worked was actually a Russian adaptation by Konstantin Balmont. Balmont was not entirely faithful to the original, as he brought with the adaptation some of his own interpretations. Consequently there were even passages about death (!) in the stanza describing the sleigh bells. Hence, the musical piece begins with gentle tinkling followed by a joyful chorus, then transitions briefly to a somber atmosphere. But finally the chorus returns and drives the movement to a hopeful and triumphant conclusion. Despite this alarming deviation, I believe that the most important element of Poe’s poem was captured in Rachmaninoff: the unceasingly repetitive yet charming singing of the bells, heard even in the opening phrase. In The Bells, Rachmaninoff used a luminous cast of bell-like instruments, including tubular bells, glockenspiel, triangle, tambourine, celesta, among others. And these he employed so masterfully that as one listens, one can almost feel as if riding on a sleigh, flying into the eternal light of a beautiful place.
Liszt’s and Rachmaninoff’s bell pieces are both relatively easy to listen to, as each is (more or less) dominated by a single unifying character. This, unfortunately, is not the case for the Scherzo from Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) Fifth Symphony, written ten years before The Bells. Alas, the structure of the overall symphony is so logical! It is a work in five movements; the first two (often analyzed as Part I) are dark and tragic, and the final two (Part III) are romantic and exuberant. But the middle movement, the Scherzo (Part II)…well…it is difficult to really make anything out of it! As you may have guessed, it is supposed to serve as a transition, and it plays its role so well that it hovers continuously between love and despair, eventually driving the listener insane. Why so much tension? Mahler’s inspiration for this piece were two major events which happened in his life, and these two events fell on completely opposite ends of a “happiness spectrum”: he married, and he almost died from an intestinal hemorrhage. Thus throughout the entire piece the two forces battle fiercely with each other. But we feel reassured, as the piece begins with hope and ends with hope. And not surprisingly, one of the elements Mahler relied on to achieve this was bell-like sounds, played by the triangle, cymbals, and glockenspiel. We hear bells after the opening jovial tune from the French Horn, and after fifteen minutes of unbearable uncertainty and suspense, we are happy to welcome them back. Upon the bells’ return, we feel once again that all is going to be well.
Ah… the magical sound of bells, capable of expressing so much, and always lodging itself so firmly in our memories. The composers, whatever their backgrounds and instrumentations, were tempted to incorporate bells into their masterworks. And we as listeners are similarly tempted to listen to the bells, though we cannot understand just why they are so attractive. But we do not need to; we have only to enjoy this lovely blessing. This Christmas season, may the music of the bells enliven your lives and bring indescribable joy to your souls!