1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Parsifal Bell-instrument

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[ 867 ]

PARSIFAL BELL-INSTRUMENT (Ger. Parsifal Klavier Instrument), a stringed instrument ingeniously constructed by Schweisgut, of Carlsruhe, from Dr Mottl's design, as a substitute for the church bells in Wagner's Parsifal. This instrument has been constructed somewhat on the principle of the grand piano; the massive frame is shaped like a billiard table. There are five notes, each with six strings, three in unison giving the fundamental note and three an octave higher. The strings are struck by large hammers, covered with cotton-wool, which the performer sets in motion by a strong elastic blow from his fist. The hammers are attached to arms 22 in. long, screwed to a [ 868 ] strong wooden span bridge placed horizontally above the strings at about two-fifths of the length from the front. On the point of the arm is the name of the note, and behind this the felt ledge struck by the fist. Two belly bridges and two wrest-plank bridges, one set for each octave, determine the vibrating length of the strings, and the belly bridge, as in other stringed instruments, is the medium through which the vibrations of the strings are communicated to the soundboard. The arrangement of pegs and wrest-pins is much the same as on the piano.

The realism demanded by modern dramatic music taxes the resources of the orchestra to the utmost when the composer aims at reproducing on the stage the effect of church bells, as, for instance, in the Golden Legend, Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, Rienzi and Parsifal. The most serious difficulty of all arose in the last-mentioned drama, where the solemnity of the scene and its deep religious significance demand a corresponding atmosphere on the stage. Real church bells for the notes Wagner has scored in the familiar chime would overpower the orchestra. All substitutes for bells were tried in vain; no other instrument, leaving aside the question of pitch, gave a tone in the least similar to that of the bell. Independently of the rich harmonics composing the clang, the bell has two distinct simultaneous notes, first the tap tone, which gives the pitch, and the hum tone or lower accompanying note. On the interval separating the hum from the tap tone depend the dignity and beauty of the bell tone and the emotional atmosphere produced. A stringed instrument, similar to the one here described but with four notes only, was used at Bayreuth for the first performance of Parsifal, and with it tam-tams or gongs, but after many trials the following combination was adopted as the best makeshift: (1) the stringed instrument with four keys; (2) four tam-tams or gongs tuned to the pitch of the four notes composing the chime; (3) a bass-tuba, which plays the notes staccato in quavers to help make them more distinct; (4) a fifth tam-tam, on which a roll is executed with a drumstick.

The special peal of hemispherical bells constructed for Sir A. Sullivan's Golden Legend is the only other successful substitute known to the writer; the lowest of these bells is a minor tenth higher than the lowest note required for Parsifal, and the aggregate weight of the four bells is 11 cwt. The bells are struck with mallets and have both tap and hum tone. (K. S.)