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Belfry Ivan the Great by Vasily Surikov, 1876 (Photo credit: WikiArt.org)

Toutes les cloches sonneront

Vous y dansiez petite fille
Y danserez-vous mère-grand
C’est la maclotte qui sautille
Toutes les cloches sonneront
Quand donc reviendrez-vous Marie

(See Marie: the Words to a Love Song)

This post is a continuation of a discussion of “Marie,” a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire  set to music by Léo Ferré. “Marie” is a love poem. Apollinaire was romantically involved with Marie Laurencin, a well-known French artist who was a frequent guest in many salons. In the first stanza, Apollinaire writes: “Toutes les cloches sonneront,” if Marie as a grandmother can dance as she did as a young girl. 

Bells are a powerful symbol. For instance, the line “[t]outes les cloches sonneront” brings to mind Les trois cloches,” (The Three Bells), a Swiss song written in French by Jean Villard Gilles that won Édith Piaf and les Compagnons de la chanson a great deal of praise. It is the subject-matter of my nearly complete next post. In “Les trois cloches,” bells ring when Jean-François Nicot is baptized. They ring on his wedding day. And they ring at his funeral. These are the key events of his life, our life, and bells ring.

Bells, however, church bells, are particularly important in Russia and are one of the distinguishing elements of Russian music.

Bells in Russian Music

  • liturgical use
  • other uses (secular)
  • an institution
  • the carillon

It is not uncommon for Russian composers to imitate the sound of bells in their music or include bells among musical instruments. In Russia, bells, church bells, were/are used for both liturgical and secular purposes This is also the case in the Western Church, but to a much lesser extent.

In other words, bells in Russia are little short of an institution.

The language of bells

Not all bells produce an identical sound. For instance they differ in size. A large bell is a louder bell. When mixed and depending on the rhythmic pattern, bells may therefore be used to convey a rather wide spectrum of messages, liturgical and secular. Some bells can be heard from afar and transmit a message that other bells can retransmit: D’écho en écho (Les trois cloches).

The Carillon

There is an instrument made of bells: the carillon. It may use a large number of bells. Ottawa’s Peace Tower has a carillon of 52 bells (see carillon, Wikipedia), played by Dr Andrea McGrady, the Dominion carillonneur. The carillon is an instrument that reminds me of a church organ. There are carillons all over the world and in places such as university campuses and parliaments. In Germany, a carillon is called a Glockenspiel. Elsewhere a Glockenspiel resembles a zylophone.

Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris

In Victor Hugo‘s Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), published in 1831, the cathedral’s bells are central to the novel. Quasimodo, the hunchback, is brought up to be the bell-ringer and swings from a rope to save Esméralda from the gallows.

The Canonical Hours 

Bells are also linked to the eight Canonical Hours or Liturgy of the Hours and the more secular, but devotional, Book of Hours. In “Frère Jacques,” a 17th-century song, the eponymous Frère Jacques rings the canonical hour called matins:

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous ? Dormez-vous ?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.


But let us return to Russia.

Although church bells are used in many cultures, for both liturgical and secular purposes, in Russia, they play a more central role than they do in the Western Church. However, the phenomenon I wish to emphasize is, first, their being imitated in music and, second, their being used as a musical instrument.

Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky composed music which, unlike the compositions of the Group of Five, did not attempt to be a national idiom, which does not mean that their music is not Russian. It features bells.

Sergei Rachmaninov

A discussion of bells could lead to a very long post. For the time being, let us note that Russian composers use musical instruments to reproduce the sound of bells ringing and that they may used bells as instruments. As we have seen above, there is an instrument made of bells: the carillon. However, we will listen to two works for the piano composed by Sergei Rachmaninov and imitating the sound of bells. We will also listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture: bells and cannons.

The very end of Sergei Rachmaninov‘s Prelude in C-sharp minor 🎶 (Op. 3/2)  the sound of bells. One may not hear the bells immediately, but we are definitely listening to a reproduction of the sound of bells in a piece for the piano. I am including a performance by Russian-born pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Prelude in C-sharp minor (Op. 3/2)

Piano Concerto Op. 18/2 🎶

One can also hear bells at the very beginning of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto Op 18/2. I am embedding Hélène Grimaud‘s performance of this concerto. According to Wikipedia:

“[t]he opening movement begins with a series of bell-like tollings on the piano that build tension, eventually climaxing in the introduction of the main theme.”
(See Piano Concerto Op 18/2, Wikipedia.)

Tchaikovsky: chimes and cannons

The 1812 Overture, with chimes and cannons, is a celebration of the defeat of Napoléon‘s Grande Armée in Russia. An excerpt of the 1812 Overture closes this post.


Sources and Resources

With kindest regards to all of you.

Edward V. Williams, The Bells of Russia: History and Technology (Princeton University Press, 2014 [1986])

belfry-ivan-the-great-1876© Micheline Walker
12 July 2015