Ghosts of Eastern Cathedral Bells in Penderecki’s Utrenja

Penderecki’s massive and powerful work Utrenja (The Entombment of Christ) is an oratorio scored for soloists, two antiphonal choirs, and orchestra. A companion oratorio, Utrenja, Part II (Resurrection of Christ) follows. Penderecki creates a curious aural illusion in the fourth movement of the first part. In the opening seconds we hear the unmistakable sound of the resonance of a great distonic cathedral bell - a bell whose timbre sounds particularly Russian, in fact. However, a look at the score tells us that there is no bell present at this moment. Even the distonic metallic objects which are called for elsewhere in the piece, such as tam tams, tubular bells, and gongs, are not present here. The timbre of this ghost bell is created only by brass instruments (six horns, four trumpets, four trombones, and two tubas) aided only in the illusion by an initial soft strike of the piano’s lowest strings with a timpani mallet, perhaps imitating the initial strike sound of a bell. Penderecki has effectively synthesized the sound of an Eastern Orthodox cathedral bell’s resonance using only brass instruments, then frozen this timbre in time by having these instruments hold their pitches without decaying or fading out the way an actual bell would.

Opening harmony of Utrenja Part I Mvt. IV

Opening harmony of Utrenja Part I Mvt. IV

The dense harmony is made up of 15 pitches, all in the lowest register of the ensemble. Each of these is transformed very subtly and gradually into microtonal inflections of themselves over the course of the opening bars. This slight internal movement aides the effect of the illusion of a bell timbre, as partials of a struck bell would change over time in real life. Penderecki manages to create the internal movement without allowing the individual instruments to un-fuse from the group, keeping the illusion intact.

Penderecki’s intention in this oratorio was to capture the essence of the orthodox Slavic rite of Easter Eve. In preparation for composition, he visited old monasteries in Southern Russia and South-east Poland and Bulgaria, particularly in order to find examples of the tradition that had been unadultered by modern liturgical reforms (Schwinger 1989).

Demonstration of the great bells at Rostov. Note the thickness of the bells’ walls. If you have seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 film Andrei Rublev, you have heard a recording of the largest of these Rostov bells before (in the climactic bell-casting scene at the end of the film).

Whereas Western bells have traditionally been cast with light, thin walls and then ground on a lathe to produce a very precise tuning, in the Eastern tradition this practice would be considered a travesty, as it eliminates the individual personality of the bell. As a result, these thicker, heavier Eastern bells are much more rife with microtones and are considered to be more of a percussion instrument than a melodic one. One author even compares the sound of a Russian bell to a European bell as the taste of granola is to white bread. (source)

Below you can hear and see the difference between a typical Russian bell and a typical Western European bell. Notice in the spectrogram on the left of the Rostov bell that (the very different sizes of these two bells notwithstanding), the sound is made of a great many more peak partials, and there are several loudest partials (shown in red) which are virtually the same volume. In the French bell on the right, there are fewer peak partials, and their respective volumes differ greatly, with the loudest partial sounding in the 215-258 Hz. range as shown.

Rostov Bell, spectrogram (one strike)

Rostov Bell, spectrogram (one strike)

Notre Dame de Paris bell, spectrogram

Notre Dame de Paris bell, spectrogram

In the following recording, the sound of the initial striking of the Rostov bell has been removed, leaving only the resonance. The resonance was then looped, and the final result lowered by ear to roughly the same pitch range as the opening chord of Utrenja mvt. IV. Compare the timbre of the looped bell resonance with the first few seconds of the fourth movement of Utrenja and see if you notice any similarities. (Try to listen past the sound of the trumpets, which stick out of the texture somewhat, to the background behind them.)

If you continue to listen through this short movement, you will hear the bell effect return more than once. In fact, one may hear ghosted Russian bell timbres at various points throughout all of Utrenja, Part I created with various combinations of players or voices, but this fourth movement contains what is arguably the clearest example of this aural illusion.

Penderecki’s aim was to capture the essence of the orthodox Slavic rite of Easter Eve. In including these aural illusions of bells (and not just any bell, but the distinct timbre of an Eastern Orthodox cathedral bell - such an important part of the sound and history of the Eastern church tradition) - he does more to enrich the work in this underlying essence than the oratorio’s texted and melodic allusions alone.