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The Bells of Thuringia

December 14th, 2007
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Thanks to a friend who sent me this wonderful link to recordings of church bells in Thuringia, Germany. Listen to this and you will know what church bells are supposed to sound like. My experience is that American Lutheran congregations often ring a bell for thirty seconds or so at the start of the service. In Germany they are rung regularly, throughout the day, on the hour, and even through the night. In Wittenberg, I recall sleeping with the window in my hotel room open, hearing the bell of St. Mary’s tolling throughout the night to mark the passing hours. Here in the USA, people would protest that this is "noise pollution." To which, I would say, with all the gusto I can muster, "Bah! Humbug!"

In the city of Magdeburg, I was sitting down in the cloister of the great cathedral there and all of sudden I just about toppled over backward as the bells of the cathedral began to ring. They rang, and rang, and rang. What was going on? It was just 3:00 p.m. and the bells were riging the passing of the hour for nearly twelve minutes non-stop! It was amazing.

The bell featured in the first recording you will hear is one of the largest bells cast during the Middle Ages, the "Gloriosa" at the cathedral of Erfurt. This was the bell Luther heard on the day of his ordination in the cathedral, and the bell he would have heard during all the years in the monastery, which was within short walking distance of the cathedral. Cast in 1497, it is the largest bell cast during
the Middle Ages and, at 8 feet in diamater, it is still the
world’s largest medieval free-swinging bell. 

Read the extended entry for technical details about the bell and its sound qualities.

Recording downloaded from Internet
Analysed: WAH 6/1/01

To quote from the website
describing this bell: The Gloriosa (of Erfurt Cathedral) is the
outstanding specimen among the older bells to have survived. This is
one of the finest achievements of European bell-casting and one of the
largest bells to emerge from the Middle Ages , being about 2 meters
high and 2.57 m across.

I think this is the bell Simpson refers to in his second paper.
He says "According to the observations
of the organist Gleitz, the bell cast for the Cathedral at Erfurt in
1477 has the following proper tones – E, e, g#, b, e’, g’#, b’, c’# ".
His date is out by 20 years, but the proper tones listed correspond
well with those frequencies observable in the bell today. Here is the
recording of Gloriosa I retrieved from the above site, condensed into a smaller file size.

Bell Founder Tuning
1 Gerhardus Wou de Campis, 1497 welded in 1985 to repair a crack
other tuning history not known

Tuning of main partials

Bell nominal: 329.8Hz and 333.2Hz (the nominal is a doublet).

Bell Hum Prime Tierce Quint Nom’l S’quint O’nom.
1 -2434 -1188 -904 -547 -17
651 1203

(The figures in this table are given in cents. For
all partials except the nominal, the interval is given from the nominal
of the bell. Intervals for the nominals are relative to that of the
tenor. Pairs of values indicate a doublet. Frequencies for the quint
are often not given, especially if inaudible.)

Intensity plots

Here is the spectral analysis of this bell. Due to the nature of the
recording, the spectral peaks are quite wide. However, the doublet on
the nominal is clearly visible.

Erfurt, Gloriosa


I do not know if this bell has been tuned since it was cast. If not,
the accuracy of the various partials is striking and good enough to
make even a modern founder proud. In addition, the intensity profile is
typical of that seen in the very best modern bells, with all partials
above the nominal rather subdued and a quiet hum. If anything, the
control of the octave nominal is much closer that which is achieved in
modern work.

As this is a large bell, one would expect to hear a secondary
strike, and sure enough, as well as the half nominal pitch of about
165Hz we hear a secondary strike at about 215Hz, generated by the ear
from the partials at 415 cents and 1667 cents (with frequencies of
423.6Hz and 872Hz respectively). These partials are almost exactly an
octave apart, giving a sonorous re-inforcement to the second strike
note. In a modern bell, the secondary strike is a fourth above the
primary. In this bell, it is a sharpish major third (458 cents) which
sounds much more pleasant and gives the bell a bright, melodious tone
despite its weight.

Truly a remarkable bell considering it was cast over 500 years ago.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. organshoes
    December 14th, 2007 at 19:27 | #1

    Indeed. There will be bells in heaven. And oh the tintinnabulation.
    Thank you for that music, so rare, and so other.
    I am definitely not afraid of bells. Not I, who awakened to midnight car alarms and pre-dawn dumpster-dumps from outside my little apartment not so long ago–something to truly humbug over.

  2. Michael Zamzow
    December 15th, 2007 at 14:27 | #2

    Perhaps Poe’s poem about bells has spoiled American appreciation for bells. The clanging of fire bells is purposely noisy. The rich combination of tones and timbers and how they are perceived by the human ear (as is so richly described in the extended post) lead to the swelling musicality of church bells.
    It is truly wonderful that so many bells have survived. The Nazis gathered them for melting. Only those whose alloy was not suitable for making weapons survived. They were joyously retrieved from “bell cemeteries” after the war.
    It is said that bells served two purposes: to chase away demonic powers and to call the faithful. Silencing the bells would thus serve a dual purpose.
    I suppose having screens and powerpoint equipment is more important to many congregations than a decent bell. I wonder how many screens will be calling Christians to the Gospel 500 years from now.

  3. organshoes
    December 15th, 2007 at 20:07 | #3

    A true post-modern irony (it is not dead after all) is that 21st century man doesn’t know noise when he hears it, beauty when he sees it, nor truth when it slaps him up-side the head.

  4. Brigitte Washeim
    December 17th, 2007 at 18:09 | #4

    I got homesick when I listened to the bells. In my home congregation in Munich the bells were rung at the beginning of the
    service, when the Lord’s Prayer was said (so the sick at home could pray along, at least that had been the original intend) and at the end of the service. And, yes, there too some peaople complain about noise pollution, but we do like our traditions, we Germans.

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