Today, we pay homage to the German-American musicologist Karl Haas, who hosted the nationally syndicated radio program, Adventures in Good Music, between 1970 and 2007. One of the show’s most popular episodes, The Story of the Bells, was broadcast at Christmastime. It documented the distinct sounds of church bells throughout Europe, from the mighty cacophony of Zurich, to the pastoral serenity of the Alpine village of Arosa, to the highly ordered change ringing of Westminster Abbey. This Christmas tradition of bells continues each year at The Listeners’ Club.
The Gothic spire of Ulm Minster soars to a height of 530 feet. Dominating the skyline of Ulm, a small southern German city on the banks of the Danube, it is currently the tallest church in the world. Begun in 1377 and completed in 1890, it stands as the fifth tallest structure to be built before the twentieth century. Seven hundred and sixty eight steps lead to the top of the steeple. In the Middle Ages, before the introduction of pews, the church could accommodate 20,000 people. The tower contains thirteen bells, ranging in weight from 40kg up to almost 5000kg.
The bells of Ulm produce warm, rich overtones and magical rhythmic and contrapuntal combinations. Surely, this is the kind of “chance” music that would have excited the twentieth century composer and philosopher, John Cage. Additionally, the combination and order of the bells create distinct harmonies. In this example, the bells take on a mediative, almost jazzy sonority as they step down in the following combination of pitches: B-flat, F, E-flat, D-flat, C, B-flat.
In this combination (C, B-flat, A-flat, F, E-flat, D-flat, A-flat), the bells add up to an awesome cacophony:
This recording from Ulm features a celestial chorus of nine bells:
The Nine Main Bells of Ulm
- Gloriosa, Heinrich Kurtz (Stuttgart), 1956 A-flat
- Dominica, Heinrich Kurtz (Stuttgart), 1931 B-flat
- Betglocke, Eger (Reutlingen) 1454 C
- Leichenglocke, Ernst (Lindau) 1678 D-flat
- Kleine Betglocke, Heinrich Kurtz (Stuttgart) 1956 E-flat
- Kreuzglocke, Heinrich Kurtz (Stuttgart) 1956 F
- Landfeuerglocke, unknown A-flat
- Taufglocke, Heinrich Kurtz (Stuttgart) 1956 B
- Schiedglocke, Heinrich Kurtz (Stuttgart) 1956 C
Featured Image: A closeup of Ulm Minster