Bells can often be heard ringing out in cities across America. Many bells, such as the one at the top of the Smithsonian Castle, are struck with automated mechanisms to ring the hour. Other sets of bells, known as carillons, are played as musical instruments by one person at a keyboard. At least two examples can be found in Washington, DC: at the National Cathedral and the Netherlands Carillion near the Iwo Jima Memorial (US Marine Corps War Memorial). There’s also the Taft Carillon near the US Capitol that rings every quarter hour in an automated way. The National Zoo also has a carillon, but it has not been used for many years.
Other sets of bells are rung using the art of English change ringing. It requires a group of people ringing in close coordination. This type of ringing originated during the 17th century in England, where it remains common. In change ringing, ringers stand in a room beneath the bells. The bells are rung by pulling ropes extending through holes in the ceiling to the bells above. In the upper room, the rope is attached to a wheel mounted with a bell. A pull of the rope causes the bell to rotate around 360 degrees, and the bell is heard when the clapper strikes the bell as it swings around. Each person is responsible for one bell. Ringing can take place with 4 to 12 people depending on how many bells and people are available.
There are about 50 active change ringing towers in North America, and two in Washington, DC: National Cathedral (one of the few towers to have both a carillon and change ringing bells) and the Old Post Office. The bells at both towers are rung by members of the Washington Ringing Society, an affiliate of the North American Guild of Change Ringers. I started ringing back when I lived in downtown DC, just a few blocks from the Old Post Office. From my balcony I could hear the bells every Thursday evening during practice sessions. I liked the idea of a performance that could be heard by an entire city, so one Thursday I introduced myself to the group and began learning how to ring.
Both change ringing towers in DC have 10 bells. The bells at National Cathedral were dedicated in 1964. The smallest bell, and the one with the highest pitch, weighs 618 pounds. The largest bell weighs 3,588 pounds. The bells at the Old Post Office are slightly smaller, weighing between 581 and 2,953 pounds. They were dedicated in 1983 as the official bells of the US Congress, after being given by Britain’s Ditchley Foundation for the American bicentennial in 1976. The National Park Service offered public tours of the tower with a great view of the city. The building is currently closed, undergoing renovation to become a hotel. Both the ringing and the public access to the tower will resume after the hotel opens.
Change ringing almost always begins by ringing the bells in sequence from high pitch to low pitch. This is called ringing “rounds.” A command can then be given to change the order of the bells or begin ringing certain patterns. At that time each person makes a slight change in the speed of their bell. This changes the sequence of bells (thus the name “change ringing”). For instance, a person who is ringing fourth in the initial sequence could make their bell ring slightly faster so it becomes the third in the sequence, then the second, then first. Then the ringer might slow down to become the second bell, then third, and so on. The bells are so heavy that only slight adjustments can be made. Traditional melodies are not possible. In change ringing only one bell at a time should strike, resulting in a constant rhythm. During a performance, all ringers must keep watch and listen to the other ringers to maintain the pattern and rhythm.
Change ringing uses patterns called “methods.” These patterns call for each bell to move up and down through the sequence of bells at specific times. In addition, commands issued by one of the ringers (the “conductor”) can modify the patterns. Ringing sessions are composed and conducted to avoid repeating the order in which the bells are heard. Each permutation should occur only once during performances, so there is a mathematical aspect to planning a ringing session. Several methods are commonly rung at change ringing towers around the world, although there are thousands of possible patterns to ring.
Special ringing is often required for special occasions. A “quarter peal” is about 45 minutes of uninterrupted ringing. A full peal lasts about three hours. The Washington Ringing Society often rings quarter peals after the services at National Cathedral and at national holidays at the Old Post Office. At National Cathedral we ring in the New Year—literally. The evening of New Year’s Eve begins with a quarter peal. Then, right at midnight, the largest bell rings several times followed by another set of ringing that lasts about half an hour.
Andrew Johnston is a bell ringer with the Washington Ringing Society and geographer at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
More information about change ringing: http://www.nagcr.org