While I work to expand the accessibility of handbells and musicianship, it is a privilege to also expand the literal range of handbell instruments I get to use in that mission.
Although this video isn't directly part of the #BuildBetterBrains educational series, I did get to record the unboxing of a brand new aluminum Malmark C2 handbell that is joining the collection at forzandoArts, which is not only used by the #BuildBetterBrains Project, but also made available to schools, community ensembles, and churches across the United States.
This monster of a handbell weighs in at over 9 pounds and measures more than 18 inches across. It sounds one step lower than the largest handchime you saw me perform in the Auld Lang Syne new year video. (The lowest needed for Auld Lang Syne is D2, although I do demonstrate the C2 in this unboxing video.)
For comparison, this C2 handbell weighs a little more than a gallon of water, but it is not the heaviest C2 available. Malmark and Schulmerich, the two U.S.-based handbell foundries, also manufacture bronze C2s. Although they have a slightly smaller diameter, the denser bronze weighs in at a massive 14 pounds! I briefly show one of these bronze C2s in the video as well.
C2 sounds two octaves lower than concert middle C, which is C4. Handbells are in fact a transposing instrument and sound one octave higher than written, placing C5 in the middle C position on our scores.
And just when you think we couldn't go any lower, Malmark does make aluminum handbells down to G1. That's the same as the lowest G on the piano, but still nearly an octave inside the range of an 88-key piano, which ends at A0. (On the other end, though, handbell are made up to C9, which is a full octave off the top of a piano!)
What is Bell Metal? (It's Not Brass!)
Throughout the ages, bells have traditionally made from “bell bronze.” This alloy is comprised of approximately 22% tin and 78% copper, with the later providing the characteristic glowing color. While each metal is relatively soft and prone to deform, combined they become more elastic and able to withstand the impact of being struck repeatedly by the clapper.
Although bell bronze has long been established to have a roughly 4:1 ratio of copper and tin, different regions have traditionally added other metals in small amounts. These elements change the timbre, giving bells from the Middle East, India, China, and Russia (and many other locales) recognizable tones.
The elasticity and durability of bell metal has found other practical uses. There are industrial applications such as valve bodies and piston rings. Historically, it was common that in times of drawn-out war, bells would be melted down and recast into cannons. When peace was reestablished, the cannons would be dismantled and recast into bells. Indeed, gunmetal and bell metal are essentially the same material.
Bronze vs. Aluminum
While bronze's qualities are ideal for many applications, including enormous bells hanging in carillons and clock towers around the world, there is a limiting factor for handbells: Mass.
It is challenging for a musician to precisely and safely sling instruments when their mass and inertia exceed a certain bounds. The bronze C3 handbell that sits at the bottom end of a traditional 5-octave setup is a little of 7 pounds, and for decades that was considered the largest practical handbell.
Setting aside the expense in materials and manufacturing, anything larger is just darn heavy. Make a loose fist with your index finger and thumb creating a level surface. Balance a gallon of milk on that. Imagine lifting that weight in a motion resembling scooping ice cream, repeatedly, for an hour-long concert. It puts a lot of strain on your wrist, arms, and lower back — even when proper ergonomic posture is used.
It took a long while, but Malmark eventually figured out how to significantly reduce weight of 2s (meaning “the twos,” referring to the complete octave below C3) by casting the handbells in aluminum. This was a reasonable development: The material is already used in handchimes and can be tuned to produce a musically appealing timbre.
Of course, there are some trade-offs. Aluminum is lighter, but requires a larger bell to make the same pitch. This can complicate choreography in performance, as well as makes table layout more challenging.
Further, aluminum bells are slightly more brittle and less durable than their bronze counterparts. While all instruments deserve care, aluminum handbells require the same elevated protection as the larger handchimes.
Finally, there are differences in the way that bronze and aluminum bells sound. In the bass, bronze handbells have a warm, inviting sound. Close up, a bronze C2 sounds fantastic! However, while resonate, bass bronze bells' projection range is limited. When sitting in a concert hall listening to an ensemble with bronze bells below C3, I sometimes struggle to hear these lower-pitched instruments.
On the other hand, aluminum bass bells have a darker tonal quality. The fundamental pitch is more pronounced and they project over greater distance. The lambswool clapper gives a gentler “muffled” strike than the rubber-covered clappers on bronze handbells.
Why Aluminum Wins (For Me)
If weight and projection were no issue, I would prefer to listen bronze handbells all the way down to G1.
Practical reality, however, doesn't really support this. I have performed extensively with bronze 2s, and aside from being exhausting, it often felt like we were trying to muscle every decibel out of the instruments just for them to be heard by the audience. It felt unmusical — nearly everything was played at fortissimo.
Unfortunately, the size of bass handbells make them extremely difficult to amplify in live performance. No matter where you put the mics, unwanted sounds will be picked up while instruments struck away from the mics will be missed.
It does not matter how sweet and inviting the bronze sound is if it cannot be heard.
This leads me to prefer aluminum bass bells. Although their size can be awkward to choreograph with, they can be rung gently and still heard across the stage and into the audience. We can be musical with them, dynamically rising and falling in volume with the rest of the ensemble.
As for the difference in timbre, this is generally obscured in performance. Very often a 2 is doubled by the 3 an octave higher. As you hear in my video, when I ring the C2 and C3 simultaneously, they compliment each other very well. The C2 brings the fundamental lower pitch, while the C3 fills in the overtones that create the warmer tone.
Nonetheless, there is an argument for using some bronze instruments in the 2s. When a musical line briefly descends from C3 and returns, or has a leading pitch into C3, it is likely preferable to hear that in bronze. As such, some ensembles work toward having twinned bronze and aluminum bells representing A2, A♯2, and B2. This lets them pick the right material for the musical function.
Although bass handbells do not normally feature in most published handbell solo music, they do sometimes appear in small ensemble music for trios and quartets. I will certainly be looking for opportunities to present these wonderful, if hefty, instruments in future #BuildBetterBrains lessons and demonstrations.
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