Heirloom handbells provide Christmas sound year-round
At far left, Dr. Harvey Spencer leads his handbell group, including his daughter Sonya (third from left) in Wellesley Hills in the late 1940s. Photo courtesy of Sonya Norton
Christmas and bells, whether "Silver Bells" or "Jingle Bells," just seem to go together. For Sonya Norton, however, the sound of bells ringing is a yearlong gift, wrapped in memories of her father and the musical legacy he left behind.
Ms. Norton owns two sets of beautifully crafted handbells that once belonged to her father, Dr. Harvey Spencer. The handbells were cast by Mears and Stainbank, now known as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, in London, England.
Although that name may not "ring a bell," the foundry has been in existence since 1420, famous for creations such as America's Liberty Bell, which was cast in 1752.
Ms. Norton's father, a pediatrician at the time, became interested in handbells after hearing the Beacon Hill Bell Players performing door-to-door in Boston neighborhoods. Margaret Schurcliff, their leader, introduced the tradition of English handbell ringing to America. She owned the first set of English handbells in this country, given to her as a gift from the Whitechapel foundry's manager in 1902.
First used by church bell ringers for practice, handbells have become instruments in their own right. Photo by Ralph Stewart
"Handbells were created so the whole village did not have to listen to bell tower practices," explained Ms. Norton. A team of church bell ringers, with each man pulling one rope, might spend hours practicing, with their mistakes pealing loudly across the countryside.
Ms. Norton's father began acquiring his first set of handbells from England starting in the 1930's. At first, Dr. Spencer bought only a few at a time because the duty on bringing handbells into America was steep, assessed on 100 percent of their value. His sister Ethel Kingman helped out by bringing back two or three bells each year under the allowable duty quota when she and her husband Russell traveled to England with the United States Lawn Tennis Association. A banner year was 1938, when Mrs. Kingman brought 12 bells home aboard the ocean liner Queen Mary.
After acquiring a set of 36 bells by 1942, Dr. Spencer started his own handbell group in Wellesley Hills, in which Ms. Norton and her sister Beth also participated.
Jim and Sonya Norton stand ready to ring in the holidays on an heirloom set of handbells in the living room of their Vineyard Haven home. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Ms. Norton has enjoyed playing the handbells ever since, introducing her husband Jim and countless others to the hobby through the years. Although the Nortons, residents of Vineyard Haven since 1973, had four children, Sarah, Jamie, Heather, and Laura, their family was not quite large enough to form their own bell-ringing group, with 12 considered ideal.
The second smaller set of handbells owned by Ms. Norton was commissioned by her mother on Dr. Spencer's death in 1956. Given as a gift to the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in Framingham where he had served as a psychiatrist, the set was later returned to the family.
Both sets of English handbells were cast in polished bronze and brass. While some handbell players wear white gloves to protect the bells' finish, Ms. Norton said, "We've never used gloves when we play ours - we like the patina." Newer bells, she said, are made of a different alloy that does not have the same rich timbre as hers.
Dr. Harvey Spencer points out a note on his hand-written music for his bell-ringing group. Photo courtesy of Sonya Norton
The clappers have leather tabs and are restricted to forward and backward motion, held clear of the bell by felted springs. The handles also are leather, with each note clearly stamped on them. Dr. Spencer's first set of handbells was tuned to concert pitch, but the second was not, so the two sets cannot be interchanged or played together.
The technique for playing handbells, Ms. Norton demonstrated, is kind of like fly-fishing, involving a snap of the wrist that makes the bell resonate. As the pitch of a bell deepens, its size and weight increase. It takes some heft to ring the low C bell, which is about 7 inches in diameter and weighs a little over 3 pounds.
Playing styles vary. While some bell-ringers quickly mute their vibrating bells, Ms. Norton said she prefers to hear the sounds overlap when she plays with a group.
After the Nortons first moved to the Vineyard, they played handbells after church on Sundays with a group at their home. They also performed at various Island events, including passion plays at Easter time in Vineyard Haven, and at the Old Whaling Church during "Christmas in Edgartown" in the mid to late 1970s.
Ms. Norton is generous in sharing her handbells, bringing them to Christmas gatherings and patiently teaching novices. Her music is easy to follow, written in large print on poster board. Even those who cannot read music can play handbells by learning how to recognize a particular note - and paying very close attention.
The nudge system to cue non-music reading bell-ringers is not fail-safe, Mr. Norton has learned. One time a colleague asked Mr. Norton to give him a nudge when it was time for him to ring his bell. However, at the crucial moment, instead of ringing his bell when nudged, the man turned to Mr. Norton and asked in a loud voice, "What?"
In the end, however, mistakes do not seem to matter. The bells sound beautiful, even in dissonance. Perhaps a verse from "Carol of the Bells" by Peter J. Wilhousky says it best: "Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, throw cares away."