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Bells are ringing at St. Paul’s Cathedral again October 22, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture.
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Eight English models form centerpiece of 75-foot tower

The loud clangor echoing off buildings and through downtown streets lately may sound like a cacophonous din to some, but it’s a joyful noise to anyone familiar with the centuries-old British art of change ringing.

Eight bells, tuned to an F-sharp major scale, are the centerpieces of the new 75-foot tower at St. Paul’s Cathedral, on 22nd Street between Third and Fourth Avenues North. They are being rung, mostly on weekends, by a fledgling group that is preparing for its first performance today following 11 a.m. High Mass at the Cathedral.

The $4.8 million project, which includes the bells, the tower and refurbished school building, will be blessed and dedicated today at 3:45 p.m. After that, the bells go through their first big test.

At 4 p.m., a group of experienced ringers from throughout the Southeast will attempt a “peal”, a series of more than 5,000 patterns, or “changes,” that follow prescribed sequences.

“A peal to a ringer is what a marathon is to a runner,” said Neil Thomas, the bell hanger from Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London who is overseeing the installation at St. Paul’s. “It’s a nonstop performance of about three hours. The first one was done in 1715.”

Change ringing has been practiced in England since the 18th century, but the installation at St. Paul’s is the first in Alabama.

“They have slowly crept down the east coast of America in recent years,” Thomas said. “The idea is catching on.”

A structure large enough to hold bells ranging from 1,500 to 6,000 pounds must house the set. Each bell is connected beneath the bell chamber by a rope that each bell ringer can pull.

“As it swings, it exerts 3,000 pounds of sideways force, 6,000 pounds downward,” said Thomas. “They ring in full circle.”

The idea for the installation came about in 2002, when Rector Richard Donohoe asked the cathedral’s Director of Music Stephan Calvert how he felt about a handbell performance.

“I said, very honestly, that I thought it fell rather flat,” said Calvert. “In an offhand remark, I said, `What we need are tower bells.'” Famous foundry

After a visit to Whitechapel Bell Foundry, and hearing nothing but positive feedback about the company’s installations, Calvert was confident they could do the job. History has borne out his decision.

“We have direct lines back to 1570,” Thomas said. “When Robert Mot set the foundry up, he was casting cannons and balls for the Spanish Armada invasion, as well as making bells.”

Whitechapel is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. Big Ben, at the Houses of Parliament in London, is its largest bell, at 13 tons, but the company’s most notable in America is the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

There are varying reports about how the noted crack occurred in 1835. One is that it was damaged during Chief Justice John Marshall’s funeral. Another is that several boys, asked to ring the bell for Washington’s birthday, tolled it too hard. Was Whitechapel ultimately responsible for the damage?

“Indirectly,” said Thomas. “We cast the first one. The second one was actually recast over here, but every time they’ve done it, it keeps cracking.”

Whitechapel has made three Liberty Bell replicas this year, and another is on the way.

“That one includes the headstock and wheel and everything,” Thomas said. “It’s going up to Anchorage. I hope one day every state will have a replica.”

Whitechapel has installed bells for change ringing in more than a dozen American states, but its largest operation is in England, including one in the other Birmingham that Thomas is especially proud of.

“About a decade ago, a church in Birmingham, England, took change ringing one step further, to 16 bells,” he said. “It’s absolutely mind-blowing.”

More than rope pulling

Although change ringing patterns are fairly straightforward, performing them is harder than it seems, especially for novices. Calvert hopes to develop local bell ringers into a harmonious ensemble, but that may take some time.

“Our local band is made up of about 50 percent parishioners, and a few people from the community,” Calvert said. “We found two ladies from Lewisham, England, here in Birmingham, both of them ringers. We have used their expertise in helping to teach. One or two of our ringers have stepped forward and made a lot of progress. Some of the others of us haven’t caught on so quickly.”

Ringer Steve Vinsavich is having a great time learning the craft, but he worries about St. Paul’s downtown neighbors.

“I often wonder if we’re not driving them insane because of all the ringing,” he said. “There’s a real art to it, much more than just pulling on the rope, but I don’t claim to have figured out that art. It’s much more involved than I thought.”

Peter Rataj is also new to change ringing, but he was enlightened by a field trip the ringers took to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

“We went to see what change ringing is about,” Rataj said. “It’s a mathematical permutation of each bell, and it kind of scared me. But I stuck to it, and although we’re far from being as good as the people at St. Luke’s, it’s contagious enough to keep you coming back.”

“It’s visual and it’s mental,” Thomas said. “You’re looking at all other seven people and you know where you’re headed. The aim is to try to ring like a computer would – eight people as a team.”

Although Rataj laments the group’s stumbles, starts and stops, he is beginning to realize the fruits of their efforts.

“It’s time consuming,” he said. “Two to three hours weekly. But it’s fun. If you’re going to put eight people together and make sense of it, that’s accomplishment.”

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