History of the glockenspiel

Brief description

  • The name glockenspiel is a German term meaning “bell play”, referring to the sound made of small bells.
  • At the end of the 17th century steel bars started to replace the bells.
  • In the beginning only a substitute for real bells, this arrangement of metal bars soon developed into a musical instrument in its own right and retained the name "glockenspiel".
  • Like the xylophone, the glockenspiel is a great popular instrument among children. Even Carl Orff had used the glockenspiel from the 1930s for his Method of teaching children music.
  • The instruments for children have a smaller size, are diatonically tuned and also have bars displayed upon a frame like a trough. The lower-pitched glockenspiels usually have short resonators chambers and are also known as metallophones.

Predecessors of the Glockenspiel

The instrument now known as the glockenspiel is a mixture between the fusion of two other different instrument types, the actual glockenspiel with real bells and the metallophone. The actual glockenspiel is made of a set of bells of different ranges. One or more musicians play a number of overlapping melodic sequences. The exact number of musicians required for carillon’s mechanical playing action truly depends on the size of the instrument.

In Germany the fixed bells playing in churches or town hall belfries is known as Beiern. There are many places where the sequence of notes is played by an automatic mechanism performed by a clockwork device. This type of music is still very much an active and exciting part of local tradition in many areas in Germany and a great tourist attraction. Smaller glockenspiels worked on the same notes sequence principle.

Coming from bells to percussion bars

  • In China, bells were part of the orchestra as far back as 4.000 years ago. In the 9th century hemispherical, pear-shaped bells had already been popular among western monks. These instruments, named cymbala, had small, round bells made of bronze which were suspended from a rail and struck by one or two musicians.
  • In the 14th century there were two types of glockenspiel – large instruments in church towers and smaller ones for playing at home.
  • In the 17th century smaller glockenspiels started to become adapted with a keyboard that made it possible to perform more difficult musical parts.
  • The first step to the glockenspiel used in nowadays orchestras was made by the Dutch in the 17th century. They replaced the unhandy bells with a row of percussion bars following the fashion of the metallophone from eastern Asia.

The glockenspiel as an orchestra instrument

The first composer that wrote music for the glockenspiel in the orchestra was Georg Friedrich Handel who included the piece in his oratorio Saul (1738). He used an instrument called carillon that had a range of two and a half octaves and had metal bells – or bars – that were played througha chromatic keyboard. The final sound was supposed to be like of metal hammers beating on anvils.

For his Magic Flute (1791) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a glockenspiel which was basically the same as the one Handel had used. He used the glockenspiel to define Papageno, the bird catcher with his magic bells.

The Dutch idea of replacing the complicated bells with simple bars was widely embraced in the first half of the 19th century as it was a more practical asset. The result was the keyboard glockenspiel where the bars were struck by small hammers controlled by keys. This new instrument made it possible to perform parts which had previously been written in keyboard style.

Today the keyboard glockenspiel or the celesta invented in Paris in 1886 by Auguste Mustel is used to play older parts containing chords and mostly difficult glockenspiel parts.

In wind bands the bell lyre is used, as this is a portable version of the glockenspiel created for marching bands that was already widespread in Germany in the 19th century. Today this instrument is used in many countries, but mainly in the USA.

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