Posted by: kaleidophonic | March 25, 2012

The Sound of Bells Pt. 2: Histories from France & Germany

Okay okay. So, way back in January when I first blogged about Quebec’s churchbells I promised that more on this subject was on its way. Now, somehow, it’s already the end of March. (Ack!). So, I guess it’s time I fulfilled that promise, especially since that original bell post has proved to be one of the more popular posts on this blog. (Thanks, Kaleidolings!).

In today’s post I’ll be offering some of the more interesting history behind bells, mostly in Europe. As with my previous bell post, a lot of this info comes by way of two books in particular, Les Cloches d’Eglise de Quebec, sujets de culture (2010) by François Mathieu and Alain Corbin’s classic study of sound and meaning in France, Village Bells: Sound & Meaning in 19th Century French Countryside (1998). So hop aboard the time machine. Here we go!

We’ll start in France, a predominantly Catholic country – that is, at least until the French Revolution of 1789, which deposed Louis XIV and replaced the power of the King and the Church with a secular democratic republican system. Much like Quebec, France’s countryside prior to the Revolution would have been defined by a soundscape replete with the sound of churchbells, in small villages throughout the countryside as much as in big cities like Paris. But since one of the primary aims of the Revolution was to secularize and rationalize French society, this required a concerted effort to undermine the power of the Church. One of the most potent symbols of the Church’s power being the sound of the church bell, these items quickly became a target.

In November of 1789, the revolutionary government issued Decree No. 2, which put all ecclesiastical property in the possession of the state. Over the next three years, according to Mathieu, over 100,000 bells were removed, and were melted down into coins or cannons. I think this is a particularly revealing action: coins and cannons symbolize two priorities of Revolutionary France: economics and militarism. Other bells that were removed were simply smashed or broken, a sad fate for such beautiful artifacts. Some of the bells that were not removed or destroyed were put into the service of the Revolution, such as la cloche des heures de Sumène (Gard). There were also a few bells made in secret during this period, but these were mostly small, artisanal items, certainly not the large bronze behemoths cast in state foundries.

Fast forward to 1989, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. As part of the celebrations some bells were cast or re-cast in remembrance. One, in particular, was inscribed « Je chante la mémoire de mes sœurs disparues » (“I sing to the memory of my disappeared sisters”). Another, « 1789-1989 je sonnerai le souvenir de mes sœurs. » (“1789-1989 I ring the memory of my sisters”).

Germany, too, has a rich history when it comes to bells, and today the country is a world leader in bronze casting and bell foundries. Indeed, Michel Rowan, Quebec’s foremost bell-expert (or campanologist), was trained in Germany. Since 1946, over 70,000 bells have been cast or re-cast by foundries in Germany. But Germany’s affinity for these ringing relics did not make the church immune to the kinds of sacrilege seen in Revolutionary France. During the First and Second World Wars, German forces confiscated between 120,000-150,000 bells from churches in Germany, Holland, Belgium and Austria.

 François Mathieu claims that the Germans’ motives were not anti-clerical, a statement I find a bit hard to believe, especially given the Nazis’ concerted efforts to undermine the power of the Catholic Church during the 2nd World War. However, while anti-clericalism might have been a factor in the German war-on-bells, the primary motive was military: they needed the bronze for armaments. Sound familiar?

Last year, Saint Mary’s University (in Nova Scotia, Canada), held an art exhibit titled Silence and Memory: The Lost Bells of Europe. The exhibit assembled 127 artifacts which were the last traces of medieval and early modern church bells melted down by the Nazis during the Second World War in Europe. According to a press release on Saint Mary’s website:

A Canadian bell expert, Percival Price, traveled to Germany towards the end of the war to determine the location of the church bells and to see if any could be recovered. Price returned home with 127 of the casts, after meeting with Nazi art historians. They were later given to the Ottawa Museum of Civilization upon his death…

Freeman [the curator of the exhibit?] discovered the collection at the Museum of Civilization after conducting research into Percival Price and locating a note about the casts in the national archives. The casts are now on loan to Saint Mary’s Art Gallery.

In an interview with The Coast, Freeman described the significance of the bells. “The bells were melted down to make into munitions to achieve the racist, expansionist aims of the regime,” said Freeman. “These melted church bells are tied to the Holocaust. There was very little resistance from German churches when they came to take the bells away. People generally considered this a sacrifice they were making for the good of Germany.”

Read more of the interview here.

Clearly the history of church bells is rich, and potentially rewarding for anyone who chooses to dig a little deeper into the past. My home province of Quebec has a rich history of bells too, with stories I hope to bring you in the not-so-distant future.

Stay tuned!

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