The Carillons Handbell Choir
By Claudia Mosby
Photo: Brett Faulknor
Celtic missionaries spreading the Christian gospel used handbells as early as the fifth century A.D., but not until the 16th century in France and western Germany did handbells come into popular use musically.
North Americans have PT Barnum, who hired Swiss bell ringers for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, to thank for importing this traditional musical art form in the mid-19th century.
Today, handbell choirs perform both sacred and secular music, drawing fans of all musical tastes. The Carillons Handbell Choir, originating out of St. James Lutheran Church in Redding and directed by Nancy Schmitt, is a local bell choir that took its name from the grand dames of bells, the carillons (pronounced carol-ONS) that hung in European church belfries or other municipal towers.
Part of the Handbell Musicians of America guild, the Carillons Handbell Choir dedicates itself to advancing the musical art of handbell ringing. Schmitt is the Area 12 Northern California Region Coordinator, working with choirs throughout Northern California and Nevada.
Although St. James started its own choir in 1991, Schmitt says, “Some of the ringers from the First Presbyterian church wanted to ring with us, so we combined choirs. Really, we’re an ecumenical choir because we have members from several different churches.”
The core group of 12 ringers, ranging in age from 42 to 72, has been together a number of years. They count among them two married couples, a church organist, and mother-daughter duos. Most have been playing for about 20 years.
The commitment to a handbell choir is more than most people realize, says Schmitt, adding, “Each person is in charge of two to four bells, so if someone is not there, those bells don’t get played. If you’re in a vocal choir with six sopranos and one is missing, you still have five. If two or three people are gone from the bell choir, we can’t have a rehearsal.”
The making and tuning of a bell is an art form in itself. Bronze ingot is melted at almost 2200 degrees Fahrenheit before being poured into a sand-casted mold. Once set, craftsmen use a vibrating bed and small hammer to free the casting from the mold.
The bell, which then goes on a lathe to remove the coarse casting surface and to shine it, gains its shape and tone during the turning process. Each bell is precisely traced inside and out to match it to its original template before being tested for sound quality by stroboscopic tuner and by ear. Once a bell is fine-tuned, the handle is attached.
The number of octaves in a musical piece determines the number of bells and ringers required: seven for a two-octave range, 10 or 11 for three-octave pieces, and 12 ringers (the size of the Carillons Handbell Choir) for pieces featuring a four-octave range. The bells are played either serially to produce a melody or sounded together to produce a chord.
Every October, the Carillons play with bell ringers of all levels from across Northern California at the Redding Handbell Festival, hosted by Simpson University. In January it hosts the Redding Bronze Advanced Ring, featuring expert players from Northern California, Oregon and Nevada.
The choir’s most exciting performance to date occurred a few years ago in Wittenberg, Germany, where they trained 16 local handbell ringers to perform with them for both German and English language services at Wittenberg’s Castle Church.
A two-year fundraising campaign netted $50,000, covering half the costs for its 13 members to make the 10-day trip, which was dedicated to workshops, concerts and sightseeing. Several choir members plan to return next July to conduct further training and perform with local ringers at Castle Church’s Wittenberg Handbell Festival.
The Carillons perform at retirement communities, schools, weddings and funerals in addition to playing at St. James Lutheran Church the first Sunday of the month and at its Christmas Eve service. “We’re open,” says Schmitt. “If someone calls us, we’ll go.”
The Redding Bronze Advanced Ring will be held Saturday, January 25, at 4 pm at First Presbyterian Church, 2315 Placer St. in Redding. •