Unique bells ring in the season

Matthias Walter holds tightly to the clapper of Switzerland’s biggest bell

There is not a Swiss town or village where the church or town bells do not ring out, often marking every quarter hour.

This content was published on December 13, 2003
Dale Bechtel,

swissinfo presents a guide to a few of the places where the bells are definitely worth hearing.

The “poor sinners’ bell” announces the hour. It is 7pm in Bern and the Minster bell is a signal for merchants at the Christmas market in the square below to close up for the evening.

Switzerland is particularly blessed with historic bells since its towns and cities were spared the destruction wrought on other European countries during the two world wars.

The poor sinners’ bell has received the most attention of the seven old bells in Bern’s Minster, or cathedral, since it was reactivated two years ago to ring as a solitary bell.

“The poor sinners’ bell was the name given to bells which were rung as a sign that a condemned person was to be executed,” explains Matthias Walter.

Because of his passion for bells and his credentials as a music expert and student of the history of architecture, Walter received permission to alter the ringing order of the Minster’s bells to ensure that all of them can be heard at their most resounding.

He convinced the authorities to allow the solitary ringing of the poor sinners’ bell, and two years ago it started to chime again for the first time since 1861 - the year capital punishment was abolished.

Largest bell

The bell hangs in the tower alongside Switzerland’s largest bell, weighing ten tons, and another one which dates back to the 14th century.

The oldest bell, from the seventh century, is preserved in the St Gallen cathedral, while the cathedrals of Lausanne and Geneva boast specimens from the late Middle Ages.

Some of the old bells in Bern’s Minster as well as the “Barbara Bell” in Fribourg’s cathedral were cast in a canton Aargau foundry which still exists to this day.

“The Rüetschi foundry is the last remaining bell foundry in the canton, with a tradition going back to the 14th century,” explains Andreas Friedrich, before performing an Advent’s concert on a carillon of 24 bells in the old town of Zofingen.

Friedrich, a leading member of the Swiss Guild of Carillonneurs and Campanologists, says the bells in the carillon were cast less than 20 years ago – by Rüetschi – but are in tune with the Zofingen’s medieval setting.

“If you have an instrument like this dominating the square, it gives a special atmosphere to a town centre,” he says, looking down on the square from the 16th century bell tower.

“I think that is one of the reasons, especially in Europe, that there is a growing interest in carillons.”

Unique heritage

Friedrich, who is also vice-president of the World Carillon Federation, says many parts of country have their own unique bell-ringing heritage.

“There is a tradition in canton Valais of chiming on four, five or six church bells,” he explains.

“They are swinging bells, but they are blocked for chiming, so they cannot move around their axles.

“Chains or ropes are attached to the clapper and with a very primitive system of pulleys we can handle one or two bells with each hand, and one or two bells with each foot, so it’s a very funny and nice chiming tradition,” Friedrich concludes.

Friedrich’s colleague, Werner Walter, who is president of the Swiss guild, says the bells in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino are of a different shape and sound than bells in northern Switzerland.

Ticino difference

“The Ticino bells are moved with huge wheels which, when turned by means of ropes, pull the bells in an almost vertical position,” Walter writes in a recent publication.

“The ringing bells actually swing outside the belfry and sometimes even become stuck in the openings of the bell-tower.”

Back outside the Minster in Bern, Matthias Walter detects something wrong with the sound of the noon bell, which no one but a student of music would notice.

He says the bell’s clapper will need to be replaced soon.

“For me, a church bell is a synthesis between an object of art and history and a musical instrument,” Walter says.

“It’s the decoration of the bells, the inscriptions. There are certain traditions, styles and development. And of course, as a musical instrument, no two bells are alike.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Bern and Zofingen

Key facts

The ancient Egyptians were believed to have used bells in religious ceremonies.
They have been used in churches since 400 AD.
Irish monks introduced bells to Switzerland in the 7th century.
The oldest and largest bells in Switzerland are found in the cathedrals of St Gallen, Geneva, Lausanne, Fribourg and Bern.
Bells are rung by either by swinging them round their axel, or pulling the clappers of stationary bells, which usually make up a chime (up to 15 bells) or carillon (up to 70 bells).
A carillon is played from a keyboard.

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