Today, I´ll show you a video featuring the bells part for Berlioz´s “Simphonie Fantastique”. Something that scapes the eye of the spectator, as this happens off-stage to give an “in the distance” impression. This is the excerpt played by the Asturias Symphony Orchestra:
Despite this post could seem to have nothing in common with my previous ones, believe or not, it does: Berlioz´s symphony literally quotes the “Dies Irae” plainsong from the requiem mass. Because this movement is entitled “Dreams of a Witches´ Sabbath”, to quote this melody seems to be a good idea in order to recreate the lugubrious atmosphere Berlioz intended for this movement (another composer who quoted this plainsong with profusion was Rachmaninov).
The score asks for two church bells in G and C. Berlioz specifies that, should the instruments not be available, two pianos in the front stage should do the job.
This option is never used nowadays. If church bells are not available, tubular bells, plates and even synthesizers are used. There´s no need to say that, due to its rich harmonic content, volume, timbre..., church bells (the real deal) have nothing to do with tubular bells (poor man´s option). On this ocasión, we were lucky enough to have real church bells.
The weight of these instruments was ridiculous (the stage manager is still swearing!), and they were supplied with two pairs of beaters: one made of aluminium, and other made of bronze. Those hammers made of aluminium were ruled out, as they didn´t produce the wanted sound. The problem with those made of bronze was their weight... Almost five kilos each!
|Goya "El Aquelarre" ("The Sabbath")|
Once I finished playing the military drum in the previous movement (“March to the Scaffold”), I went off stage to play the bells part (due to their low heigth, my body position was a little bit awkward). Their volume was brutal and, despite you can´t see it on the video, I´m using ear plugs. A video monitor shows me the conductor, taken from a camera in the back of the main hall: this way, he can cue me (any sonical reference becomes inviable as, once you hit a bell, you can hear absolutely nothing else).
Because I´m quite far from the orchestra, I play a little bit ahead of the beat given by the conductor: this way, the final result is strictly in tempo.
The sound is not good as I´d like to, as it´s the one taken by the video camera, but I hope this video served the purpose to sneak you into a part of the "Simphonie Fantastique" no one in the audience ever sees.
…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés