The Malta Independent 22 June 2021, Tuesday

Bells and bell ringing in Malta

Malta Independent Tuesday, 7 January 2014, 11:56 Last update: about 8 years ago

Two hundred years ago, Lord Byron referred to Malta as ‘an island of yells, bells and smells’.   Much has changed since then as this Feature reveals, especially with regard to bells and bell- ringing in these Islands.

There are between 500-600 church bells in Malta.  Every church has from three to seven bells. During the 1960s, there were many groups of bell-ringers and practically every town or village had one or two.  Currently, there are about eight groups to cater for the whole of Malta and Gozo.  This clearly shows the dying interest in this art. The bell-ringing group is made up of volunteers that ring the church bells in the main religious events, like feasts and other celebrations and functions.

Anthony Zarb Dimech explores bells and bell-ringing in Malta and how this tradition is slowing abating with the changes that post-modern has introduced.

 

John Galea, affectionately known as, Johnny is a seasoned bell-ringer and hails from Msida, who as a youngster,  during the 1960s had a  fascination with Church bells; At Msida creek,  he closely observed the bell-ringers going up the steep stairs leading to  the belfry to sound the bells.  His curiosity and ambition to learn how to play Church bells grew over time and the passion developed further when he had the opportunity to own two model church bells which he skillfully played in his garden at home. 

Still lacking the knowledge and technique to develop the skills, so much necessary to practise this art, it was when his family moved residence to Bormla (Cospicua), (as his father worked at the Dockyard), that his dream started to realise itself.  He attended church services at Cospicua and had his first try at bell-ringing when he was given the opportunity to play the ‘Mota tal-Hamis’, which as the name suggests is played on Thursdays.  He was, more than ever, impressed at the size of the bells and from this first-hand experience at bell-ringing, Johnny never looked back on his hobby.  Gradually, his bell-playing took him over and beyond the Cottonera area to the churches of Birgu (Vittoriosa), Isla (Senglea), Haz-Zabbar and others. Today, he has developed his skills to the extent that he can play the bells not only from the bell tower but also from ground level.

 

Training

It is not merely the wish to learn how to play church bells that is necessary, according to Johnny, but also a huge degree of interest.  Bell-ringing also requires gentleness, precision and punctuality when pulling the rope cord. Strict observation of the time pauses is another important aspect, especially as one moves from one bell to another as the bells increase in size, scale and tonality.  In many ways, bell-ringing is similar to the playing of a musical instrument and it is very easy to get out of tune by creating loud ringing which does not  sound musical and disturbs people as the peal (‘Mota’) would not be sounded correctly.

Training involves mainly learning how to move from the smallest to the largest bell, in say a series of three, four, five or six bells (this is smililar to the music scale of any instrument).  Each peal has its time signature, say 15 minutes (‘Mota ta Kwarta’) from, for instance 5.45 a.m to 6.00 a.m.  In the same way as the scale increases it also decreases gradualy until the knelling stopped.  This is called ‘Tigbid it-Tokki’.

During feastdays around Malta and Gozo the 4 peals are played (‘Erba Moti’).  This means that the bells are played 1 hour before the indoor celebrations.  One such celebration is known as the ‘Ghasar’ when the priests sing their prayers in the choir.

15 Minutes before the celebration of the Mass, the knelling of the bells consisted in a count of 33.  This was the message to the people to prepare for the Mass.  Today's fast pace of life has reduced this to 15.

Other special knelling is used during Pontifical Mass, Quddiesa bil-Panigierku, Benediction ('Barka') and Sanctus and different death knells during funerals depending whether the deceased person is a baby, child, man, woman or member of the clergy.

Every town and village has its own style and custom of playing bells and no standard manual exists, although the styles do not differ too much from each other.  Usually each style is differentiated by region such as Cottonera, Valletta and Mellieha.

 

History

The use of bells in Churches, according to most sources, dates back to the 5th Century when St. Paulinus, the bishop of Nola, introduced them as a way to alert monks to the times of worship.

Malta’s oldest bell, Petronilla – christened as such in the 17th Century in honour of St. Peter - was commissioned in 1370 for the late medieval cathedral at Mdina that no longer survives. This bell was one of the few artefacts that survived the earthquake of 1653, comes from a Venetian foundry in the area known as Calle dei Fabbri. This bell was restored in 2007 and is now an exhibit at the Mdina Cathedral museum.

But the Maltese Islands had to wait for the advent of the Knights of the Order of St. John, who helped in no small way in developing the art and tradition of bell-founding in these islands.  The Knights operated bell foundries in Marsa.  There were two firms: one owned by ‘Aloisio Bouchut’ and another by ‘Triganza’.  Another firm doing bells during this period was ‘Leotta’.

Gradually, Maltese interest in bell-founding increased and in the early 19th Century and a Maltese- owned and run foundry was built.  The first firm that manufactured church clocks and church bells was under the management of the Tanti family and was situated in Marsa.  Another firm was that owned by Salvu Cauchi, who hailed from Cospicua.

The trade was passed on to the children.  For instance, Gulju (Giuliano) Cauchi took over the trade of his father Salvu. This firm was situated in Ghajn Dwieli. Both during the Knights period and thereafter, bells were constructed by Maltese workers.  The skill was taught by the Knights.  But sadly, when the metal alloy was mixed for making bells, all the workers were asked to leave the area in order that they would not have any knowledge and discover the mix and therefore the ‘recipe’ kept a secret. This was the main reason that the bell founding trade in Malta came to a sudden halt as the trade secrets went to the grave when the owner/s of the secret passed away.

Way back, the weight of bells was measured using the Maltese ‘Qantar’ scale.  Nowadays, the Kilo scale is used. There were several foundries overseas that manufactured bells for Maltese churches, such as one in Venice from where bells were imported to Malta during the time when the Cauchi’s and Tanti’s were manufacturing bells in Malta.  Another Italian foundry from where several bells were also imported to Malta was Bianchi.

When Gulju Cauchi was slowly moving out of the bell-founding business, bells started to be imported in greater numbers from abroad, mainly from the Italian firm Baricozzi.  This was mainly done after the Second World War.  `The majority of churches in Malta as well as many in Gozo have sets of bells from Prospero Baricozzi’s foundry,  not to mention of course imports of bells from the other Italian firm, Bianchi.

During the period after the Second World War, there were also English firms exporting bells to Malta such as Johnsons, John Warner & Sons and John Taylor and a French firm ‘Paccard’ which manufactured the Balzan church bells and the Haz-Zabbar clock bells.

 

The largest bells by manufacturer in Malta are found in:

·         Aloisio Bouchut, St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta

·         Gulju Cauchi, Cospicua

·         Prospero Baricozzi, Birkirkara

·         John Taylor. Siege Bell Memorial, Valletta

·         Paccard, Balzan

 

The largest church bell in Malta is housed in St Helen’s Church in Birkirkara; it is also claimed to be the third largest in the world. The bell is 10.25 feet (3.1 metres) high, has a diameter of 8 feet (2.44 metres) and weighs in the order of 8.34 metric tonnes, including the clapper. It replaced two previous large bells which failed and was cast in the Baricozzi foundry in Milan in 1931; the Maltese composer Carlo Diacono was entrusted with the bell’s tonality.

 

Appreication and use

Bell-ringing is nowadays only appreciated by the older folk as the younger generation has no idea of the significane of the messages in bell-ringing. Our post-modern society has taken over the idyllic Maltese life that was centered around the village church bell core.  Those were the days when most churches employed a ‘Kampanar’ (church steeple man) in the belfry. His duties began in the early hours of the morning with the tolling of the ‘Pater Noster’ – 33 strokes of the bell. 

The church bell-ringing woke up the countryfolk by the sound of the ‘Pater Noster’ at 4am to start off a day's work in the fields away from the scorching sun of the late morning hours. Likewise, the church bell kept time for the people in practically all their time table and daily chores; whether be it work, rest and prayer. 

The same peal was repeated at dusk, and again 1 hour later, to mark the arrival of night. This hour was known as the ‘Siegha Lejl’ (the night hour), or ‘Tal-Imwiet’ (the hour of the dead). The ‘Angelus’ and the ‘Ave Maria’ (at midday) were  familiar sounds of the bell ringing  for regulating lives, which have now lost most use and appreciation.  Everybody now can afford clocks, mobiles, ipads, wrist watches which at that time were non-existent.  Clocks and watches could only be afforded by the upper classes.  Thus the church clock was the clock of the people as each peal was a message that the people understood.

There are some church clock bells that are used for feast days.  There are churches having for example five bells and two bells used for working the clock.  Other churches have bells specifically for working the clock only and others which can be played separately on feast days. 

Many tourists consider church bell-ringing as an attraction and tend to appreciate bell-ringing more than anyone else and they often photograph and video occasions when bells are sounded during feast days, especially in central tourist locations such as Marsaxlokk, Rabat and Valletta.  There is also a CD on bells by Rayden Mizzi of Fgura where one can appreciate their melodious sounds. At times, model church bells are displayed and played during exhibitions to increase awareness of this hobby.

The ringing of church bells was longer in time in the 1960s and 1970s and the 4 peals (‘Moti’) of 15 minutes each, lasting from 12pm to 4pm have been abated to a period lasting from 12 p.m to 2 p.m and in some cases, even less.  In an age of cranes, cars and all sort of noise disturbances, church peals are considered more of a noise pollution to many people in sharp contrast to the golden days of church bell ringing when they were the main regulator of time and symbol of harmony for the native population.

Some other important occasions when bells are played are:

·         When a Pope is elected or passes away

·         When a parish clergyman passes away.  This salute is known as ‘Libra’

·         On Thursdays.  Known as ‘Hamis ix-Xirka - this refers to the last supper regarded as the first celebration of Mass by the Catholic Church.

There were times when Maltese church bells were used by civil and military authorities for war purposes, such as during the Second World War when church bells were played to warn people of an imminent large-scale attack over Malta.  The use of church bells was reduced during the First World War in order not to interfere with radio waves, as radio transmision was still in its infancy and also not to disturb the many thousands of convalescing servicemen on the Island. Church bells also were played joyfully when Malta emerged victorious.

 

Maintenance and care

Church bells are an attraction to storm lighning and in order to reduce the risks of electric absorbtion and consequent damage to church and surrounding properties an earth electrode system is installed.  A magnet is attached to the cross of the church's dome and the rim of the bell is lined with copper.  If lightning strikes the bell, the impact is absorbed by the lining to the magnet and down to a well.

Proper maintenance is a must and incidents have shown that church bells are prone to accidents.  Johnny mentioned a case when the tongue of a Gozo bell fell down and killed an altar boy during a procession and in another case during the feast of St. Lawrence in Vittoriosa, another tongue broke off   but, thankfully, no-one was hurt.

The bells are suspended on a beam structure and a central crown (‘Kuruna’) holds the bell together.  Both have to be treated and checked for wood infection and rust corrosion using corrosion inhibitors and protective coatings. The bolts holding the crown and the bell's tongue need regular care as all are exposed to the elements.  Johnny emphasised that many of the older Maltese bells are in dire need of maintenance and it is not advisable to wait until some tragedy takes place.  He also remarked that most of the maintenance that takes place in churches is mainly from the organ balcony downwards and the rest is, generally,  either neglected or not properly maintained  He emphasised that the upper structure especially the belfry and bells are most important parts that cannot be overlooked.

Bell-ringers usually wear headphones becasue of sound vibration during bell-ringing, though many do not wear them becasue they say that they have got accustomed to the noise.  Many bell-ringers have to withstand the elements during the feasts of St. Paul Shipwreck, St. Joseph and the Immaculate Conception, which are celebrated during winter.  Bell ringers have to be quite fit having to go up and down stairs sometimes having up to 120-130 steps. These are some of the hazards bell-ringers have to face to practise their cherished hobby.

Johnny mentioned an older generation bell-ringer, Manwel known as ‘It-Telli’ from Cospicua who is in his eighties.  He used to teach bell-ringing and very disciplined and well-known for his hobby.  Some well-known campanologists in Malta are Robert Cassar and Kenneth Cauchi.

Bell-ringing is a dying tradition.  Whereas before there was no lack of church steeple men, sextons and bell-ringers, who all used to help in church bell-ringing, the situation has changed drastically.  Not only is there a lack of such manpower but the present pool of bell-ringers has to cope with all the feasts in Malta to manually play the bells.  It is therefore no surprise that many churches are changing to electrically-operated bells, using a mechanical system of hammers (‘Mrietel’). Compared to manual ringing of bells, computerised (electronic) ringing of bells sounds inferior as the striking implement or tongue of the bell is hitting just one side of the bell.

Through this Feature we have seen the uses of church bells in Malta.  These are mainly for both religious and civil messages, different bell tolls having specific meanings to tell time, announce prayer times, proclaim special celebrations, deliver messages about deaths and weddings, and inform the public of emergencies and more. It is hoped that church bells will be revived in an attempt to remind us of the need to pray and put aside the fast pace of life with which we are surrounded, as Thomas Merton rightly put it in Thoughts in Solitude (Chapter 16), 

"Bells are meant to remind us that God alone is good, that we belong to Him, that we are not living for this world. They break in upon our cares in order to remind us that all things pass away and that our preoccupations are not important...”

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