The tradition of bell-ringing in Malta
Perhaps one of the most characteristic sounds of Maltese towns and villages, especially during the summer months, is the euphony of church bells filling the air all throughout the day. These bells have left such an impact on people visiting the island that in many cases they have become the defining trait by which the country is remembered. The most famous example of this phenomenon is probably the English poet Lord Byron, who (rather unkindly) labelled Malta as “an island of yells, bells, and smells”, when he visited in 1809.
In fact, as this anecdote may reveal, the art of bell-ringing is one that has a long and storied tradition in Malta and Gozo. The island’s oldest bell, which is still on display at the Mdina Cathedral Museum, dates back to 1370, and hundreds more have been commissioned since then. During the time of the Knights, there was even the operation of bell foundries in Malta, which produced bells that are still hanging from church steeples all over the islands to this day.
Nowadays, one can find over 500 church bells in Malta, although unfortunately, many of these are not rung as often as they once were. In the 20th century, the Maltese Islands had dozens of bell-ringer groups, but now there are only around eight groups that cover both islands. However, this does not mean that, like so many before it, this tradition is on the verge of becoming extinct, since it appears that in the age of smartphones and nightclubs, bell-ringing has managed to retain a magnetism that still attracts youth to its doors. In fact, although this tradition may no longer have the hundreds of devotees that it once boasted, there are still children and old men alike who flock to learn and practice this art every week.
I spoke to one such young ‘kampanologu’ – as bell-ringers are known in Maltese – to dive deeper into the traditions, attractions, and secrets of this art form. 14-year old Tyrone Montebello has already been taking an active part in this world for over two years, and I wished to find out what it is about bell-ringing that has captured his imagination.
How did you first become interested in this tradition? Has it always interested you, or was it a relatively recent discovery?
My Religion teacher was ultimately the one who got me into bell-ringing. He taught me the ropes, literally, and then after about a year of practicing and learning, I started striking out on my own as well.
However, bell-ringing has always fascinated me, even when I was younger. I remember looking up at the belfries when I was young, and staring in wonder at the bell-ringers. The thought of what it would feel to be up there with them used to entice me. I used to imagine what the view from up there would be like, and how the atmosphere would be.
Are there any special skills or tools that you need to become a bell-ringer?
In terms of tools, there isn’t much. The only staple piece of equipment we use is a pair of safety headphones, like the ones used in construction work, so as to prevent any hearing damage as a result of the loud sounds.
However, in terms of skills, there are some that you need to learn in order to play properly. It may seem easy at first – just pulling a rope – but when you start seeing how bells are plated you realise that there are different methods for different bells. You’ve got to gauge which direction the bell s naturally inclined to go – some swing in and some swing out – and then you’ve got to guide the bell in the opposite direction. Apart from that you also find ones that do not really swing at all, so these are tougher to play, and you’ve got to use your arm as a form of spring to ring them properly.
Precision and punctuality are essential, and you also have to judge the pauses between notes exactly. Otherwise, you will end up with discordant out-of-tune sounds that don’t correspond with the ‘mota’ (the peal).
Are all bells played in the same way, irrespective of size?
There are those who say that the larger bells are tougher to play because they’re heavier, but generally, in my experience at least, it’s the smallest ones which tend to be more annoying, because they do not swing so readily, so there’s more skill and patience needed to get them to play in the way you want them to. You’ve got to use your arms more, and need to be very careful not to play it badly.
However, the technique for both is practically identical.
Do all bells have different notes? And can one bell be made to produce multiple notes?
Each bell only has one note, and bells of the same size will generally always have the same note as well. If you want to produce multiple notes you need to have an entire set of bells, like there is at St Gregory in Sliema for instance. These have a system of specially tuned bells which is known as carillon, and which allows you to play out hymns and anthems, just as if you’re playing on a piano for instance.
Sometimes, some bells need to be tuned so that they produce the desired note. This is done by using a special machine that shaves small slivers off the bell so that it produces a clearer, and more accurate sound.
Does the material of the bell make a difference in its sound?
Nowadays, bells are all usually made out of what is known as bell metal, which is a special bronze alloy made up of 77% copper and 23% tin. However, each foundry has their own special recipe that is specifically theirs, and which is different from anyone else’s in some small way.
Incidentally, in Malta we’ve actually had six bells that were made out of cast iron, which is quite a rarity. They used to hang at the Żabbar Parish Church but have now been retired and are no longer in use.
Are there any other distinctly unique bells in Malta?
The most unique one you could say we have comes from the Milanese craftsman Prospero Barigozzi. Bargozzi became famous for his bells, even casting bells for the Duomo in Venice, but the largest bell he ever produced happens to be in Malta. This is the large bell of the Basilica of St. Helen in Birkirkara, which is also the largest church bell that we have in Malta, second only to the Siege Bell War Memorial in Valletta, which is not part of any church.
Do you think that the tradition of bell-ringing in Malta is one which is at risk of becoming extinct?
You do see youth playing and training at times, which is good because it helps us to keep this Maltese tradition alive. It would be a terrible pity if such a beautiful tradition ended up being lost. Unfortunately in certain parishes, live bell-ringing is sometimes replaced by mere recordings of bells, but this, in my opinion, is no alternative.