The Handbells of Spitalfields
The joyous art of handbell ringing has survived because it was kept alive by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. “For many years we were the only company in the world making handbells,” revealed Kathryn Hughes – joint-Master Bellfounder with Alan Hughes – as we sat together in the peaceful office of the ancient foundry while outside the traffic roared down the Whitechapel Rd . “Handbell ringing survived because of one person, Anne Hughes, my husband’s grandmother.” Kathryn continued, “She was a solo handbell ringer, and that’s how Alan’s grandfather Albert met her, he heard the sound of her playing handbells at a concert. And for a wedding present, he gave her a thirty-chime set of handbells.”
As a lover of bells and bellringing, I am always pleased to visit the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the centre of the world of tintinnabulation, responsible not just for casting big bells like the Liberty Bell and Big Ben, but also fine handbells. And, continuing the work of Anne Hughes, Kathryn herself is also a handbell ringer. “I do ring, yes,” she admitted with professional reserve – being an authority on handbells and presiding with formidable expertise over the handbells side of the business. “In the nineteenth century, traditional handbell ringing was very popular in the North of England,” she informed me, adopting an elegiac tone, “most villages had teams of handbell ringers just as they had brass bands, but the First World War decimated the teams and the whole thing died the death after World War II.”
“Albert Hughes wanted to stop making them,” confided Kathryn, almost embarrassed to admit it now and raising her eyebrows in barely concealed disapproval, “but his wife said, ‘Over my dead body.’” Anne’s stubborn refusal to let the art die was vindicated by the revival in handbell ringing which occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century, and today the art is thriving again. Now, in an exciting development, to complement the wide range of traditional compositions that exist, the bell foundry is supporting three commissions of experimental pieces for handbells by young composers to be performed as part of the Spitalfields Festival in the charismatic surroundings of Dennis Severs’ House next week.
I stepped by to join a rehearsal in one of the modest panelled rooms upstairs at the foundry, where a handsome array of gleaming brass bells lay upon the table, arranged in order of size. Taking it in turns to work with the two handbell players, the three composers drifted in and out from the next room, so I took the opportunity to have chat with them there, while the chimes continued on the other side of the door. In recent months, all three visited the time capsule house in Folgate St and have created pieces inspired by its mysterious interior, and conceived to be performed in its distinctive sound spaces.
“I’ve never worked with handbells before,” Shiva Feshareki declared, her dark pupils shining with excitement, “it’s been an opportunity to think in a different way.” The composer known only as Gameshow Outpatient agreed, “We’ve all gone in completely separate ways, which I think is good.” he said. Yet, seduced by the beauty of the sound of the bells, these two have both created semi-improvised compositions that allow the bells to speak for themselves. “I am using just four handbells, and I want to draw people to become aware of the quality of silence that exists in the house.” explained Shiva, “There are some church bells in the distance that I hope they will hear during my performance.”
Gameshow Outpatient has written a piece to be played in the withdrawing room on the first floor entitled “Dead Reckoning,” referring to the early eighteenth century when sea captains were expected to retain Greenwich Mean Time internally through physical memory during their voyages. “I’ve got a headache from listening to the opening of it over and over,” he said, rolling his eyes in playfully self-deprecation,”but the next section sounds really beautiful by comparison – thank goodness for that!”
“It’s nice to have the opportunity to be more intimate, you can encourage detailed listening when people are up close.” Edmund Finnis told me. “A lot of my music is quite fast paced and energetic but this is more meditative,” he confessed. He has sampled handbells and manipulated their sound, to accompany the live performance and provide an additional dimension of resonance.“I’m using a lot of handbells and I like the idea that people don’t know what they’re going to get,” he announced with a wicked smile, adding, “I haven’t cluttered it with too many notes, it’s about the joy of sound.”
These three premieres are part of a jubilant evening’s event celebrating bells that also includes performances in the Charnel House, and in the Masonic Temple beneath the former Great Eastern Hotel, entitled “Song of the Bell” and curated by Spitalfields Music Associate Artist Mica Levi – destined to bring Spitalfields alive to the echoing tintinnabulation of bells next week.
The composer known as Gameshow Outpatient.
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