For Whom the Bell Sings

The unexpected charm of Slovenian bell music

Ljubljana Marshes in the morning (2016) by Jošt GantarSlovenian Tourist Board

It is impossible to lose track of time in Slovenia. The church bells will regularly, usually every full hour, remind you of the ever-ticking clock. 

There’s a church on almost every hill - even the smallest village cannot do without. However, from time to time, if you listen carefully, you might overhear a catchy bell tune, unlike any other.

Bell chiming (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

As Nejc and Martin from Ljubljana’s Kašelj–Zalog parish prepare for the activity they love, there is no particular conversation between them when they climb the church tower steps. 

As a well-trained team they know exactly what to do. They simply put on their noise-cancelling headphones and start their musical performance, the bell tolling.

Bell chiming (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

What a performance that is! No wonder they hate it if one says the bells are ringing. Because under their skilled hands, they are singing, indeed.

With a bit of manual help the bells produce fascinating melodies. 

Chuch bell (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

The bigger the bell, the louder and deeper the sound when the clapper, controlled by the bell toller, rhythmically hits the bronze bell wall. 

Bells (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Every bell is perfectly unique, as the casting moulds are also exclusive to each bell. 

When hung in the church tower, they are set in an array of different sizes and shapes to reach proper tonality. 

Bell chiming (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Nejc and Martin’s bells are only five years old, but one of the oldest bells in Slovenia was cast in 1333. It is still functional in Koper’s minster. 

Close-up of bells (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

The variety of church bells in Slovenia is astounding. Some are iron, some are bronze. Some weigh 5 tons and more, some weigh just a couple hundred kilograms.

In front of the Samassa bell-making factory in Ljubljana, early 20th centurySlovenian Tourist Board

Because bells are such a large part of cultural heritage in Slovenia, there were quite a few important campanologists who strived to protect the church bells and promote bell ringing and bell chiming, also by writing several essays, guidebooks, and even dictionaries.

Samassa bell in Ljubljana (1990) by Tanja TomažičSlovenian Tourist Board

One of the most known foundry families in Ljubljana was the Samassa family, which operated in the 18th century.

Bells (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Today, bell tolling is a rare and unique activity that does not attract many volunteers, even in Slovenia which has a centuries-old tradition of it. 

There are probably only a couple hundred people that still devote their time to this leisure activity today.

Bell chiming (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

However, in the past, bell tolling was widespread. Almost every parish had its own artists. Just like today, they were a brethren with a noble purpose – connecting people with the earthly and the divine. 

Sheet music played by bell chiming (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

With a specific selection of songs they communicated very different messages – warnings of incoming natural disasters, announcements of special occurrences like deaths, and invitations to masses. 

So, the choice of a particular song was and still is an art in itself. 

Bell chiming (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

A couple of seconds into the demonstrational bell concert, Nejc starts moving to the beat he is producing. He just loves it. He will be in the zone for the next 20 minutes, the average duration of a bell tolling song.

Earphones used by bell chimers (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Truly, there is something majestic in the bells’ sound, irrespective of one’s religious belief. Although the “stage” for bell tolling is small and often cramped, the “concert hall” and the audience is huge. The bell music can be heard far, far away. 

Music notes of the music played by bell chiming (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

That is why there is no practicing on the actual bells. There is no dry run.

When bell tollers stand in front of their bells, they have to know the song by heart to be perfectly harmonized with each other. 

Sheet music played by bell chiming (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

So, rehearsals take place on simple metal pipes that represent bells. Martin and Nejc simply follow their musical transcription that is unique to bell tolling. 

Music notes of the music played by bell chiming (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Nejc is surely one of the most passionate bell lovers. For him, the bell is not only an instrument. It has been an object of his utmost admiration for 20 years.

“The bell,” he says, “is like a child. It needs all your love and care. If handled like that, it graces you with mighty, but gentle songs. For me, there is no instrument like the bell.”

A staircase in a bell tower (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Bell tollers sure have splendid views from the church towers. But you do not even need to climb towers to take in the splendid scenery of Slovene landscape.

Credits: Story

🔔 Special thanks:
Nejc and Martin, Ljubljana Kašelj-Zalog parish
Slovene Etnographic Museum

🔔 Sources:
Slovenski pritrkovavec: navodilo za pritrkavanje cerkvenih zvonov po številkah, Mercina, I., Katoliška knjigarna, 1926

Story by Anja Leskovar

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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