Tower bells toll inside Montreal church, giving concert goers a unique experience

Tower bells toll inside Montreal church, giving concert goers a unique experience

When André Pappathomas heard the archdiocese was going to take down the Sacré-Coeur-de-Jésus Church's water-damaged bell tower early on in the pandemic, he got an idea.

The longtime choir director suggested the bells — cast in France back in the late 1800s — be preserved by installing them inside the church instead where they would serve not only as museum pieces of sorts, but also as musical accompaniment during performances.

But moving the bells indoors wasn't so simple. The largest of the bells weighs more than a Ford F-150 pickup truck.

Before even considering the task of lugging them inside, the first step was to ensure the floor could support the load.

Then the bells were placed throughout the sanctuary of the church, located on Alexandre-de Sève Street, at the corner of Ontario Street.

After that job was done, the musicians had to figure out how to even play the bells indoors without leaving people's ears ringing long after they left the building.

WATCH | Percussionists play ancient church bells:

Percussionist François Gauthier said pulling on the wheel and using the clapper at full force is just not doable indoors. It could lead to broken windows and statues shaking on their pedestals, he said.

"We tried it once and we stopped it. It's definitely too loud," he said. "It's not meant to be played inside."

The solution was handmade, weighted mallets. Depending on where the bell is struck, different notes ring out.

Gauthier said there is actually a series of harmonics and overtones as you knock farther up the bell with the custom mallet.

"It's unique in the world. It's a real privilege for us to be able to feel the instrument," said Gauthier, explaining that musicians must dampen the tones with their body by hugging the bell after hitting it.

In doing that, they feel the sound.

Bells all have own tone

"It's probably the only place in the world where bells are installed in the church," said Pappathomas.

The new percussion instruments now figure prominently in a series of concerts that feature four percussionists, a choir and an organ.

The concerts have been performed this month and will likely be held again by the end of winter, Pappathomas said.

 Simon Nakonechny/CBC
Simon Nakonechny/CBC

Pappathomas said he studied each bell to understand the notes and then those sounds were incorporated into a composition that works not only with the bell tolls, but also with their echo inside the church.

"This echo is in the concert. It's in the music," he said.

Adrian Foster said, as an organist, he finds it especially interesting because organs are so connected to the space they're in. That means the acoustics inside the church are just as important as the pipes of the organ, Foster said.

"So when you bring these bells, which are really linked to the building, they're a part of the architecture of the building," he said. "It has this really special connection, I think."

 Simon Nakonechny/CBC
Simon Nakonechny/CBC

Clément Gaudreault attended one of the concerts. He said the bells sound different inside than they do outside.

Vance Payne, also in the audience, said it was the first time he had heard bells played indoors, and "the sound fills the room."

Expert commends initiative

Church bell expert and historian Michael Rowan said all you have to do is go and listen to "some of the beautiful church bell peals of Montreal — whatever is left of them — to appreciate the sound of many bells ringing together."

Each individual church bell creates irreproducible pitch and harmonics, he said. This is because there's only one mould per bell, added Pappathomas. Each mould is used only once in casting.

Simon Nakonechny/CBC
Simon Nakonechny/CBC

Church bells were — and still are — incredibly expensive, and it's curious that the local community could even afford to ship such extravagant bells from overseas, he said.

There are still several thousand church bells throughout Quebec, said Rowan, but many have stopped ringing, been sold or even thrown away as churches close. He commends the initiative at Sacré-Coeur-de-Jésus Church.

"It's fantastic," he said. "Otherwise, the bells could have disappeared."