The bells of Bristol Cathedral

Standing in the Cloister just before 5.00pm yesterday afternoon, I heard the bells in the central tower chiming. This continuous sound, which lasted over ten minutes, indicated that Evensong was about to begin in the Quire and summoned those both inside and outside the building to take their seats for the service. The ringing of these bells occurs three times a day in the cathedral, announcing the services of Matins at 8.00am, Eucharist at 12.30pm and Evensong at 5.15pm, an aural reminder that the monastic traditions established at Bristol in the 12th century continue through a daily cycle of prayer and worship. It is likely that the Perpendicular crossing tower, the bellframe and two of the four extant bells were built during the seat of Abbot John de Newland (1481-1515), who was also responsible for rebuilding the Cloister, the upper part of the Gatehouse and part of the Prior’s Lodging. His tomb can now be found in a star shaped niche on the north wall of the Eastern Lady Chapel. Newland was also known as ‘Nailheart’, and his rebus – a heart pierced by three nails – can still be seen on the two smallest bells, along with Newland’s initials and dedications of ‘ora pro nobis’, or ‘pray for me’ to St Margaret and St Clement. The other two bells are probably post-Reformation, one dated with 1670 and the other with an evocative inscription of ‘Clara vocor et clarior ero’ – ‘I will be brighter’.

Bell ringing has always been closely associated with ceremonial practice and in a busy urban space, bells at the cathedral were used to mark public feast days, such as Easter and Corpus Christi, or civic processions, such as Elizabeth I’s Royal Progress to Bristol in 1574, or to warn the city’s occupants during times of crisis. Today the North-West tower, designed by John Loughborough Pearson and completed in 1888, attests to this long history of celebratory bell ringing at the cathedral, with a prelude of ringing before every 10.00am Sunday Eucharist and on special occasions, including weddings, ordinations and school services. Local bellringers are invited once a month on a Friday to practice and full peals can last for three hours at a time. With its eight bells in use at any one time, this glorious sound can often be heard across the city.

Historically, perhaps the most important reason for sounding bells in the cathedral space was for timekeeping. With no mechanical clocks and the difficulties in using sundials in winter or at night, the sound of a bell chiming across the city or cathedral close could give its listener a sense of temporality. The striking of bells could root a person in either day or night and even seasonal changes could be marked, with longer spaces between the bells ringing in the summer and shorter spaces in the summer. On 24 August 1535, Richard Layton – one of the principal agents of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries – signed off a letter to Thomas Cromwell: ‘From Sainte Austin’s withouts Bristowe, this Saint Batholomew’s day, at iiii of the clocke in the morning…’, a clear sign that he only understood the hour of the night by the sound he could hear. Late medieval accounts of the cathedral suggest that these bells in the central crossing tower were rung every hour and – as Layton’s account indicates – also through the night.

For the Augustinian monks who lived and worked at the cathedral until its Dissolution in 1539, the sound of bells chiming would have been a familiar part of their everyday soundscape. Following the Canonical Hours – set intervals in the day for prayer – the divisions of work, pastoral care, public ministry and private worship for the monks, were all structured around an aural experience. A bell would awaken the monks and encourage them to hurry down the Night Stairs to celebrate Matins – often long before dawn – and also to signify the closing of the day with Compline, when the cathedral bells would usher in the night. As a 17th-century songbook recorded, ‘At night when you heard all the sundry bells rings / Tell me, good friends, what thoughts do they bring? The Augustinians’ bells, now what is their tale? Rise, rise! The service of God must not falter or fail!’




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Bellringing, South-West Tower. Photo: Dave Pratt

A space for silence

The Berkeley Chapel lies at the far end of the South Choir Aisle. It was originally a vestry – a space for the clergy to dress and prepare for services – and also a place of prayer for the souls of the Berkeley family, one of the cathedral’s early patron families. At present this is one of the spaces especially set aside within the building for quiet, private prayer or contemplation. It is especially suited to that purpose in some ways because of its ‘out of the way’ location, at the far east end of the church, and reached only from the South Quire Aisle via an additional little antechapel (the terms means literally ‘before the chapel’) through which you pass to reach the chapel itself. On the other hand, though, there is a large opening from the Berkeley Chapel directly onto the South Quire Aisle. This arch between the chapel and the aisle once housed the sculpted figures of a tomb of members of the Berkeley family. Because of this opening, sound flows into the Berkeley Chapel from the aisle, and the Quire. The chapel feels like a quiet space, but it certainly is not often silent. Yesterday afternoon I sat in the space alone, and there was no noise within the chapel, but the sound of the organist rehearsing flowed through into the space perceptibly muted in comparison with the sound as it could be heard from the choir itself. The Berkeley family clearly didn’t want to isolate their tomb, or the chapel space beyond that tomb, from the sound of prayer and song that resonated frequently within the Quire and the Lady Chapel. In fact, the design of these spaces, and the placement of the tomb, allows for the sound of prayer and song to flow constantly back and forth from the main body of the church into the chapel, and vice versa, across the tomb. It is a pleasing thought to imagine the tomb, and once upon a time the sculpted figures that lay on top of the tomb chest, being constantly ‘bathed’ in the sounds of the cathedral’s music, prayer and worship.




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Skeletal vaulted ceiling in the Antechapel, Berkeley Chapel (14th century). Photo: Dave Pratt

Sounds of a Cathedral. Part 2: Easter Sunday

The feelings and sounds of Easter Sunday were different in many ways from those of Good Friday, though naturally one must think of the two as inextricably linked, historically and theologically. Walking in to the cathedral on Good Friday I had been confronted by that sound of lots of people positively and deliberately being quiet together. The sound on Easter Sunday morning was entirely different: the cathedral bells pealed and people greeted one another happily. Clergy and musicians alike had that look of joyful hysteria generated by an intense process almost completed, but still in train.

Again, I was alive to the presence of sound and all the different characteristics of the sound created by and in the cathedral that day. I stopped to make a recording of the cathedral bells as I walked up to the cathedral from the south east. The noise, naturally, became louder as we got closer, and as we turned onto the space of College Green itself (so named after the college of canons that staffed – and still staff – the cathedral). The Green is part of the cathedral’s precincts, the cathedral’s land, and so the sounds that happen on and around the Green are also, strictly speaking the cathedral’s sounds. In my awareness of that, I heard the sound of the fountains outside the City Hall as integrated with the sounds of the bells, like a gentle counterpoint. When the peal paused, the sound of the fountains entered into the bells’ silence and into my hearing, and took their own solo, only to be muted again when the bells resumed. The bells, then so dominant, were in their turn significantly muted as I entered the porch at the south-east corner of the nave. There was a significant sound irony just at the start of the service, as the Bishop of Bristol introduced the Liturgy. Just after the phrase, ‘Open our ears that we may hear your word’, the microphone came on, so that he could then be properly heard. I was half tempted to think of this as another piece of liturgical theatre!

The musical setting for the Easter service was the French composer Jean Langlais’s ‘Messe Sollenelle’ (Solemn Mass), written in 1951. It was solemn only in the sense of being serious and appropriate to the church’s most important feast, for it was glorious. It is difficult and virtuosic for the choir, though several of them assured me that it was their favourite mass setting of all. The forces of the Cathedral choir were at their greatest: the girl choristers and the boy choristers were singing together, as they do only at Christmas and Easter, and they were joined by members of the Cathedral Consort, the choral scholars, and finally, an expanded number of lay clerks. There were many moments of intense sound to savour in this complex setting of the mass, including the Sanctus, which echoes the songs of praise offered to God by the angels. This begins with a kind of ‘flurry’ on the organ, and then a majestic and enormous full-choir outpouring of ‘Sanctus’. The power of the enhanced numbers of singers was almost overwhelming when, at the end, the ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ (‘Hosanna in the highest’) finishes with the trebles, the highest voices, singing ‘-cel’ on a high ‘C’, right at the top of their range: ‘in the highest’ is painted in sound, literally, with one of the highest notes that a choir can sing. The service ended with ‘extra’ sounds. Where a cello played during the Good Friday service – an instrument with an appropriately sonorous, perhaps even melancholy voice – Easter Sunday finished with a trumpet accompanying the traditional Easter Hymn, ‘Thine be the glory’, set to Handel’s music from Maccabeus. The trumpet was especially fanfare-y, metallic bright, and joyful on the final refrain.

Contrast was the essence of the choral sounds that day. Langlais’s mass, in all its French, modernist splendour, had been interspersed with instances of traditional chant. In chant, the voices sing together in unison, not in harmony or indeed dissonance or disharmony, such as those ‘crunches’ of sound mentioned several times in my Good Friday blog. These chants included the ‘Vidi Aquam’ (‘I saw the water’), sung by the adult voices only, to accompany the moment when the congregation is sprinkled with Holy Water. Finally, at the very end of the service, the Choir processed out singing the Easter Anthems. These three scriptural passages, from the Letters of St Paul (from I Corinthians 6, Romans 6, and I Corinthians 15) were sung to a plainsong chant arranged by the English composer Charles Villiers Stanford. Suddenly the sound took us back to medieval liturgy once again, albeit in a nineteenth-century arrangement. Once again, we had the experience that is familiar from every Sunday procession and from Good Friday, of the choir passing along the nave, with corporate sound splitting into individual voices as they pass by you, and then coalescing back into the sound of a choir, not a group of individual voices. This time though, in an experience almost unique to Easter Sunday, the choir did not turn around at the end of the nave and pass back up the nave aisle towards the cloister, but instead processed right out through the great west door at the end of the nave.

This created a different quality of sound entirely. The sound didn’t obey its normal pattern of the choir passing the congregation again, bringing with them another swell in volume, the fragmenting into single voices and another reintegration into a whole. On this Easter morning, the sound diminished progressively, line by line, as each pair of singers passed through the doors, until just the final few voices, in this case a pair of tenors, then a bass and an alto, were still in the building. And then there were none. We could hear them all singing together again, but outside the cathedral. The change in sound from that to which we are accustomed drew the congregation around, to look outwards, and to see the singers, in their red and white cassocks, all windswept and smiling in the morning sunshine, in the knowledge of a job perfectly executed.



Sounds of a Cathedral. Part I: Good Friday

It was auspicious that the Sounds and Silences project should have begun in earnest just before Easter. I have often observed that the cathedral has its own ‘everyday’ sounds: these include not just the daily and weekly rounds of liturgical observations and services, such as the said Morning and Evening Prayer services, and the music of Evensong, but also the sounds of people walking about the building, ‘housekeeping’ sounds, such as cleaning or moving furniture, or even that rich, resonant silence of a big building just being there. But important festivals in the church’s year provide unusual and distinctive sounds, and the sounds of usual things – like singing – being done with unusual intensity. The Liturgy of the Lord’s Death, on the afternoon of Good Friday, provided much food for thought about sound and the weaving of different types of sound into a fabric of worship, contemplation, remembrance, observation, watching and waiting. As this service took place just a couple of days after our first project meeting, I had a heightened awareness of, and curiousness about sound in all its forms.

I noticed and reflected upon many different manifestations of sound throughout the service. First I heard the clergy and choir enter in silence. It sounds odd at first to say that we heard them ‘enter in silence’, for surely in silence there is nothing to hear. But this particular kind of silence is, of course, not silent at all: it means that their voices are silent, and they are not singing in procession as they normally do when they enter the cathedral. They entered quietly, but the swish and click of many people moving as one into their places, into the choir stalls under the crossing, and into the seats on and around the Nave Altar, was palpable. After the Collect – which is the special prayer for the day – was spoken by the President (the member of the clergy who presides over the service – on this occasion the Canon Precentor, Nicola Stanley), I soon heard my own voice speaking the first Biblical reading for the service. My voice was sounding both at close hand within my own head, directly from my mouth to my ears, but at the same time it also resonated over the microphone. The passage, taken from Chapters 52 and 53 of the prophecy of Isaiah, is full of sonorous, arresting phrases, among which are several iterations of the words ‘infirmities’ and ‘iniquities’. At one point I mixed up one word for the other and in doing so, corrected myself, making it clear to myself – and no doubt others – that despite the fact that I frequently speak in public to large numbers of people, it is on rather infrequent occasions that I read such rich, poetic texts.

Soon after this reading was the Dean’s extraordinary rendition of John’s Gospel, Chapters 18 and 19. I had rarely heard it sound this way. His powerful and nuanced performance of these passages made the biblical narrative sound real in ways that the repeated reading of scriptural text sometimes does not achieve. The reading was not provided in the service booklet, unlike the texts for everything else, and so the congregation were forced to rely on their own hearing, on their listening to the words as they were being spoken. This was powerful, and encouraged me to concentrate hard, and to watch and listen intently. But the real height of liturgical performance was to come, fully accompanied by dramatic sound. First, as the choir prepared to move to the back of the nave, a ‘cellist called Robert Bull played Benjamin Britten’s Kontakion. This is part of Britten’s third cello suite, based upon the Russian Orthodox ‘Hymn for the Dead’ and written in 1971. This was, in itself, an exceptionally rich and moving sound, which focused us and primed us all for The Proclamation of the Cross. This part of the service was, for me, the most disarming and dissolving experience as, crucially, it was all about sound.

As the large wooden cross was carried up the nave to the altar, accompanied by antiphonal, or ‘call and response, singing, there were several moments at which the singing and the procession stopped, and the cross was struck hard against the stone floor of the nave. Each time that happened the resulting crack was loud and fast, and went right through my body and mind. Each time I heard the crack, it was accompanied by the clergy and attendants dropping to their knees, giving an attendant swish of clothing. The final crack, as the cross reached the altar, resonated in a different way through the more open space of the crossing, and the assembled company were left for a moment in a silence that was nonetheless full of the meaning of the sound that had just passed.

The rawness of those resounding cracks of wood on stone were then driven home with a rendition of John Sanders’ ‘Reproaches’. This is a medieval liturgical text, in a musical setting written less than twenty-five years ago by Sanders, then the organist and musical director at Gloucester Cathedral. The ‘Reproaches’, also known as the Improperia, are Christ’s questions during his Passion, such as ‘O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you?’ Over and over in the music, the word ‘How’ twists a knife, using heart-wrenching suspensions (a delay in the musical resolution between the parts creating a harmonic ‘crunch’). It is a peculiar property of Sanders’ ‘Reproaches’ that its text reaches back to the medieval liturgy, and that its modern musical setting should feel as though there can never have been any other way of hearing it. By the end of this section of the liturgy I was completely undone, and this emotional dissolution was achieved almost entirely through sound. My intellectual faculties were largely bypassed, or sidelined, and my emotional faculties needled and pummelled.

The service then doubled down on the importance of liturgical, musical, historical, and emotional continuity in the ‘Reproaches’, with the singing of the early medieval hymn ‘Pange Lingua’ as the choir processed back to the crossing. Processional singing of this sort offers a different sound experience than that when the choir is static: I heard the volume swelling and ebbing as the individuals passed by, with different voices coming into focus as different people moved past me. There was then a return to a concentration on the spoken word, with intercessions, which are prayers of petition, or prayers for particular people and situations. The reader, here called an ‘intercessor’, reads each prayer, and the congregation answer. In these exchanges there is a repeated contrast between the single voice of the reader and the multiple voice answering. Different spoken openings and answerings took place soon after, between single voices, during the repeated murmurings of the Eucharist being distributed. The same voice offered the communion over and over, and a different voice replied each time.


The final musical sounds of the service, the communion motet, deployed multiple voices differently again. This time Antonio Lotti’s 18th-century Crucifixus began with eight different voice parts singing the word Crucifixus (‘He was crucified’) over and over, in similar, though not identical, musical phrases in which the voice drops down from ‘Cru-’ to ‘fi-’ on a lower note, and then up to the ‘-xus’ on a note higher than that on which they sounded the ‘Cru-’ in each case. The lowest voices opened and the wave of ‘Crucifixus’ rippled upwards to the highest voice, which is the last to come in, before all eight parts are united on a long ‘-xus’ before proceeding on through the rest of the piece. Again, suspensions and harmonic crunches are used, so that with the final high voice’s entry on ‘Cru- ci- fi-’, the ‘E’ on ‘fi-’ clashes with the ‘D’ on which the second highest voice is already singing its own ‘fi-’. This created a twist of the emotions at the precise point at which all eight voices are telling you, again, just what Good Friday is about: ‘He was crucified’. It was a dramatic endpoint to the service, which ended with just a final few words from the President. Then, at 3 pm, the hour at which traditionally the death of Christ was supposed to have taken place, the congregation departed in silence. This was not a quiet silence, though, or even peaceful silence, but a resonant, poignant, emotionally charged silence, full of the echoes of all the sounds that had been deployed to make the meaning of this service.




Welcome to Sound & Silence

I am thrilled that this project is now underway and look forward to contributing to this blog over the coming months. 

This first blog post seeks to explain a little bit about how I came to put the project together, and how my own research has led to this point. I teach in the History of Art department at the University of Bristol, and most of my teaching is in the area of medieval European art and architecture. In my research I have a particular interest in the ways in which people used images, objects, and sounds in their religious devotional activity – that is to say, I have an interest in how people in the middle ages used buildings, pictures, books, music, bells, and many other objects and sounds to help them to pray, and to think about God. I have sung in choirs since I was a child, and have greatly enjoyed singing in churches and cathedrals, but I am not a trained musicologist, and had never included the study of medieval music in my own research. Eventually though, my curiosity about how to incorporate music into my work emboldened me. I applied for – and got  – a research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to work on the sights, sounds, and silences, of medieval religious culture. At the same time I worked with a colleague, Jon Cannon, on a conference and a book about Bristol Cathedral (and about the Augustinian Abbey that occupied the site of the cathedral before the Reformation. For a long time I have been thinking about how to bring these two interests together: sound and silence on the one hand, and Bristol cathedral on the other. A call from the University of Bristol’s Brigstow Institute for applications for slightly experimental, ‘seedcorn’ projects proved to be the way to do this, and this project is the result!

As you can see from the About page on the project website, we want particularly to look at the specific sound ecology within the cathedral building – and of the adjacent open urban space of College Green – and to investigate how people seek out and access certain types of sound, and what they think and feel about the sound that they experience. We will be conducting interviews with many people associated with the cathedral – its clergy, and its musicians, members of its congregation – and people who visit the cathedral, and people who don’t, in an attempt to discover something about how different people react to the cathedral building, and its various spaces, both interior and exterior, and how they react to its sounds and its silences. 

I am especially excited to be able to work on this project with Nerissa Taysom – a graduate of the University of Bristol, with a masters in medieval architecture, a singer, and a sound curator. She has a unique set of skills and experiences which make her the perfect researcher for this project, and I look forward tremendously to working with her.

– BW