Imagine the sound of a clock tower striking midnight: "dong... dong... dong... dong..." It's monotonous. It's rigid. It's forceful. In between each stroke, there's this ominous silence that feels like holding one's breath.
That's the sound Alan Menken evoked at the very beginning of the movie, shown in the sheet music excerpt below. Check out those repeated whole note Ds in the bass clef! Every measure begins with a massive "dong": fortissimo, accented, extremely low-pitched, and marked "roughly, with force" (as if being struck by the bellringer).
"The Bells of Notre Dame" follows a long classical tradition of imitating bell sounds, stretching all the way back to the 17th century. Bell imitations became especially popular during the 19th and 20th centuries among composers of virtuoso piano works, and to this day have inspired numerous pedagogical character pieces for young piano students. For example, here's a very short list of 20 classical works from the 17th-21st centuries, whose collective influence shines forth in Menken's bell-like music for Hunchback:
There are many things to say about Menken's imitation of bell sounds in this song. But in this introductory post, I'd like to share with you three of the techniques that he borrowed from the classical tradition.
1. repeating the same note multiple times
As already mentioned, "The Bells of Notre Dame" begins with massive clock strokes in the orchestra: fortissimo, accented, extremely low-pitched, and marked "roughly, with force" (as if being struck by the bellringer).
Here are some classical works by Franz Liszt, Blanche Selva, and Maurice Ravel that use this same technique of repeating a single note multiple times, albeit with very different moods in mind:
2. alternating between two notes a step apart
Just as a bell swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, one of the most common ways that classical composers imitated bell sounds was by alternating back and forth between two notes a step apart.
Menken used this technique in the middle of "Bells of Notre Dame," for the instrumental transitions between vocal solos. Here are two examples in which 8th notes a half-step apart are repeated, one after the other, for four measures:
Especially interesting is how Menken wove this technique into his lilting vocal melodies, which don't alternate strictly between two notes, but are definitely "somewhere in that zone" (to quote a later Disney princess). For example, in the main theme of this song, look at just how many notes are either an A (in blue) or a step above/below A (in green)!
Again, Menken did not invent this technique of evoking bell sounds by alternating between two notes a step apart.
For example, the bass line in William Byrd's harpsichord solo, "The Bells" (ca. 1610-25) just rocks back and forth, back and forth, back and forth between the notes C and D:
Another 17th-century example is Nicolas Lebègue's "Les Cloches" ("The Bells," ca. 1685) for organ. Not only does the soprano line rock between G and A, but the alto line rocks between E and F. So the effect is of two different bells swinging in unison:
And jumping ahead several centuries, Rachmaninov used this same technique to imitate the ringing of church bells for Easter in 1893, at the start of the 3rd movement from his Suite No. 1 for two pianos:
3. alternating between two notes a leap apart
When classical composers wrote ostinatos that alternate between two notes a step apart, as in the above examples, one might imagine small bells. But other times, composers alternated between two notes a leap apart, giving an impression of larger bells.
A fascinating example from the 17th century is the blisteringly virtuosic third movement of Johann Paul von Westhoff's Violin Sonata No. 3 for unaccompanied violin (1683), subtitled "Imitazione delle campane" ("imitation of bells.") The first several measures contain rapid alternations between notes that are a fourth, fifth, sixth, and even seventh apart.
200 years later, Rachmaninov often wrote bell-like piano pieces with booming leaps in the left hand, such as this excerpt from his famous Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23 No. 5 (1903):
A less-known example, from Jacob Schaeffer's masterful Yiddish choral work, "Kirkhn Glokn" ("Church Bells," ca. 1930), combines all three of the above-mentioned techniques: the alto and bass alternate between two notes a fourth apart; the soprano alternates between two notes a step apart; and the tenors repeat a single tone.
So, too, does this passage from Alan Menken's "Bells of Notre Dame" utilize all three techniques:
Making it Menken
Perhaps it's no surprise that the most obviously "bell-like" moments in "Bells of Notre Dame" don't copy the classical tradition exactly, but rather adjust it to Menken's own musical personality.
To see what I mean, let's do a thought experiment.
1. Begin with a two-bar ostinato. Put a repeating note in the bass (technique #1). Alan Menken likes thirds, so have the melody alternate between two notes a third apart (technique #3). For kicks, we'll add the lyrics: "bells, bells!" Here's what it looks and sounds like:
2. Alan Menken likes sequences. So, let's take that two-bar ostinato and turn it into a sequence. For dramatic effect, have the last step of the sequence go up a 3rd, rather than a 2nd:
3. Now let's add a dramatic ending. Open fifths are another classical technique for imitating bell sounds, so let's tack on two open fifths a fourth apart, ascending this time rather than descending. Then repeat those two measures a fourth higher. And there! We've got the end of "Bells of Notre Dame!"
And there you have it: a musical passage that is thoroughly Alan Menken, but draws on three different centuries-old classical techniques for imitating bell sounds (repeated notes, alternating thirds, and open fifths).
I hope you enjoyed this blog post - the third in a 12-part series about the Hunchback of Notre Dame soundtrack! The remaining parts will be posted weekly over the next few months.
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Samantha Zerin has a PhD in historical musicology from New York University, and has taught music theory at NYU, Brown University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is also a composer and poet, and teaches private students. To learn more about Dr. Zerin and her work, you can visit her main website, www.CreativeShuli.com