Restoration of bells and new groups of bells ringers in València

Dr. Francesc LLOP i BAYO
Representative of Valencia Government
General Direction of Culture and Museums

Valencia (Spain)

People rang bells for centuries in Spain and other European countries not only for religious reasons, but also in order to organize their community life. They were closely associated with Christian church services, municipal and local messages. The use of bells related to clocks came later because religious ringing was performed during the daytime, i.e. between the dawn, the noon and the dusk, and in view of certain technological reasons (lack of electricity). At the same time, most of European cities developed two opposite ways of using bells: bells ringing of melodies for clocks, and bells ringing of rhythms for ecclesiastic and municipal indications. However, clocks were actually more for prestigious rather than for practical use, in Spain at least. And bells and clocks utilized different levels of the same tower.

The first prayer in the morning marked the opening of city-walls, calling of parishioners to the divine service after it was first announced at the opened market, the noon prayer signified the eating time and so on.

Nevertheless, in the 1960s most of traditions related to bells disappeared in Spain, especially in Comunitat Valenciana (Valencia Land). Electric motors replaced bell ringers. As a matter of fact, these new devices don’t safeguard the inherited tradition, exclude the use of bell ringing by hands, transform original bell sounds, and destroy many bells and towers.

But in the 1990s positive changes happened, especially in València. New younger groups of bell ringers have started to perform this valuable form of local intangible cultural heritage. This presentation is just an account of this revitalizing phenomenon.

Comunitat Valenciana (Land of València)

Spain forms an integral part of the European Union which now groups 25 countries. This country of 506.013 sq. km and 44.108.530 inhabitants (according to the 2005 census) is situated in the South-Western Europe. The Kingdom of Spain is divided into 17 lands or regional communities, each of which has its own parliament, government and budget.

La Comunitat Valenciana (Land València) is just one of such regions. With its area of 23.255 km2 and population of 4,692,449 inhabitants, the region is located at the Mediterranean seaside. 90% of inhabitants live at the coast, occupying 10 % of the whole land, while other 10 % live in the mountainous mainland. Principal cities are València, Alacant, Elx, and Castelló de la Plana. In total they constitute 541 municipalities. Two official languages: Valencian and Spanish are used.

The coastline is 632 km long where prevails Mediterranean climate (with variations of 12º - 20º C in winter and 24º- 32 º C in summer).

The capital - València is situated at the seaside and had 796.549 inhabitants in 2005. Founded in 138 B.C. by Roman soldiers, it became a Christian city later (in approximately 350 A.D.), then a Muslim city (from 715 until 1238) and finally a Christian city again in 1238. The city was the capital of the Kingdom of València, which formed a part of the Aragón Kingdom. Its full integration into Spain took place in the 18th century. Prior to that time the Valencian people were forbidden to travel and trade with America. And they exported their goods only to Europe and the Mediterranean region.

For many centuries, València was specialized in commerce, production of ceramics, tissues and fruits. Presently, it is famous not only for oranges and mandarins, but for furniture, cars (“Ford”) and other industrial articles. The role Valencia’s ports are important too.

Bells in València

Since the time when València became a Christian city, its bells have formed a part of its daily sound landscape. Christians brought the first bells in 1238 as testifies the next year’s poetry (1239).

The most important bells were invariably associated with cathedrals and not only for prestigious ends: their sounds had to reach the city-walls and far beyond, keep inhabitants informed and coordinate such essential events in a city as the opening and closing of its walls.

Perhaps, a bell is the only existing musical instrument whose sounds ring throughout centuries. It is often considered as the only living voice of the past. Actually every bell sounds unchanged and in the same way till it breaks up. Nowadays, modern restoring techniques enable to rehabilitate its initial voice, as it will be explained further on in my presentation.

The cathedral’s eleven bells played complicated melodies. This intangible cultural heritage was not only oral, but also as a written one. The preserved books fro the 15th, 16th and 18th centuries describe in detail how to play, safeguard and understand bells. Those writings were not musical partitions. They represent some sort of reminders/guidelines addressed to bell ringers. It is almost the same as for formal music since you should know the non-written rules to play any musical instrument.

Bells played a very important role in organizing the life of people, since they denoted/expressed “natural time”. Clocks were introduced in València later (the first one dates back to 1372 as the existing ‘Old Clock’s” street testifies). Contrary to bells, clocks produce “artificial time”. As it is known, hours are unchanged either at day or at night, with the sun or the moon. Deprived of electrical devices, traditional life was adapted to the daylight time. In addition, the bell ringing was adequately adapted: bell ringers played prayers and other melodies only during the day; night was the time of silence.

As a matter of fact till 1964 the Valencian cathedral’s bells were ringing at regular intervals (six or seven times a day), every one of them marking a quarter of an hour or longer period of time in order to organize/announce different happenings of the day. In those times people thought that, bells (and bell ringers) were not modern enough and therefore they replaced ancient facilities (wooden headstocks, old clappers, ropes and other appliances needed for bell ringing) with more updated electrical devices.

However, those electrical motors could not ring in the traditional/historical way and people lost the possibility to ring by hands. But the innovation was considered to be “the necessary prize of technological progress” and although people were unhappy of the latter, nevertheless they accepted it. Moreover, the bell ringers, including the famous ones, were not believed to be artists or musicians. The role was limited to that of hand workers. As a result, the art of bell ringing was lost and unrecorded for future generations.

The new innovative system of bell ringing exposed various problems: bells were ringing all the time, in the same unchanged way and were producing confused messages. Metallic structures and electrical motors fractured bells, clappers, and church walls. As a result, many important historical/musical instruments represented by bells were irretrievably lost. In addition, the metallic devices completely changed bell sounds.

Some people opposed the growing lack of recognition of ancient bells and traditional bell ringing. Their efforts were not in vain. In 1971, we initiated a hand bell ringing again: one day a year at the “Torre del Patriarca” (historic tower in València). It was the only regular bell ringing in the whole city and the sporadic one in the larger region. That initiated annual bell ringing has continued until the present. A CD on that bell ringing will be presented in our workshop later.

Restoration of bells in València

Since 1988, the Generalitat Valenciana - the Government of the Valencia Land began to restore ancient/historical bells. The aim was twofold: to safeguard these ancient instruments and recover their traditional/original sounds.

The first restoration was carried out in Cheste: out of authentic six bells cast at the end of the 18th century, only three remained safe, while the fourth was damaged. As a result of restoration, the damaged bell was melt up in Germany, and its original sounds recovered. Two new bells were cast; with the help of computers (software) not only the shape, but the sounds of the existent and disappeared bells were perfectly reproduced. Ancient wooden headstocks were built in order to preserve the sounds of the restored bells. Computer-driven motors were used for these bells to make their ringing as the traditional one. The reintroduced bell ringing by hands did not lead to any sound changes. Finally, a computer closely controls all the devices permitting not only the work of a clock works, but also historical bell ringing played at traditionally-fixed hours (for example, on Saturday evening announcing the weekend’s holiday).

A dozen of bells have been restored in those years. The most important result of our activities was the decision of the Valenciana Government Generalitat Valenciana (taken in 1996) to allocate an annual subvention to churches and municipalities for restoration of ancient bells. Almost 2 million Euros have been already spent on restoration work (2.250.000 US$). And 250 historic/ancient bells have been fully restored (the oldest one was cast in1305).

All this had an enormous impact: our Government demonstrated an innovative model of bells’ restoration; other communities wish to use it and seek necessary financial sources in order to restore both ancient and modern bells.

Model of bell restoration

The bell restoration is based on three conditions: it must recover the bell’s original sound, bells should ring in their traditional manner and restored bells to be rung by hand.

We particularly insist in the original sound because every bell is not a musical instrument, but only its part (very important one). The bell, its clapper, the shape of the tower – all of them change the colouring of its sound. In addition, the restoration means to recover the bell original/authentic sound. This argument is more valid, because bells rang/spoke “local languages” which also must be preserved. For example: the way of the cathedral bell ringing is the same as to announce a festival or the death of an adult in neighbouring villages close to the city or three or four kilometres far off.

Therefore, computer-driven motors must sound similarly to those produced by hand bell ringing in ancient times. I believe that the most interesting testimony for the present forum will be the ringing of the restored bells performed by hand.

Teams of new bell ringers

At the beginning, we were a small group (1-2 persons) of enthusiasts ringing bells. Other came to help us. The predominant atmosphere in society was that bell ringers were crazy and retrogrades opposing the advance of modern history and progress.

At the same time, such bell ringers were not just people who rang bells. They acted like the motor in reviving an ancient tradition. Every group of enthusiast bell ringers tried to safeguard adequate local traditions, interviewed old people, looked for money on restoration, and claimed that their bell ringing meant a normal cultural activity. The most interesting fact is that the majority of the existing 20 or 25 groups of bell ringers are concentrated in industrial cities/ towns. It can be interpreted as the necessity of people living in modern and vast agglomerations to recover their belonging to the traditions likewise the villagers. In addition, the traditional bell ringers who existed in villages have totally disappeared and their neighbours have been left with proper bell ringing training.

Els Campaners de la Catedral de València

At the beginning (in 1988) the most important groups of bell ringers existed at two cathedrals: Segorbe (North of the Comunitat Valenciana), and València. They created an association under the name “Gremi de Campaners Valencians” (The Valencian Guild of Bell Ringers). An initial ideal was to have a sole association for all bell ringers in the Comunitat Valenciana. More than 300 people were grouped in it. The principle of voluntary work, without being paid ringing prevailed. Only small subventions were given to this Association for partial restorations, travels and provision of meals.

Later on, we decided that every city/town should have its own association. The Guild therefore will become “the association of associations”. The work is planned now so that an early meeting takes place each time, in a different place, which permits other local association to show their bells and particular manner of bell ringing. Since people differ, their bell ringing differ too. Each manner is specific and must exist as such one: there are no “the best”, “the worst” or “unique” performances of bell ringing.

The most significant association is also “Campaners de la Catedral de València”, “the Valencia Cathedral’s Bell Ringers” which includes 100 associated members and 300 friends/supporters. The greater number of bells (11) and their antiquity can explain the strong membership in this Association (the oldest one dates back to the period between 1305 and 1735). Additional factor is that the bells are not driven by modern motors and rung by hand during 70 days per year.

Of particular interest is the participation of many young people in bell ringing nowadays. It should be remembered that a bell could weight one or two tons and bell ringers people are in permanent touch with them. There is a special expression in Valencian or in Spanish - “tocar la campana” meaning “to touch” and not to play/ring a bell. First, people (including young ones) should learn the safe manner of ringing in conformity with strict and quite complicated rules. For example, there was the National Festival of the Comunitat Valenciana on 9 October 2006 and 12 people were ringing the Cathedral bells. The youngest bell ringer was 10 year-old and he was ringing the one-ton bells himself. The oldest bell ringer (71 year-old) was with his tutored assistant-boy. Six bell ringers out of 12 (50%) were younger than 25 years. Three other young people aged 18 attended the ceremony and tried to learn how make practical bell ringing. The bell ringing was extensively covered by mass media (television and radio broadcasting). The most exciting moment was the direct transmission ringing of bells from the festival and live interviews with bell ringers.

Promotion of bell ringing

Mass media provide excellent means for promotion of not only the bell ringing, but also its meaning, particular values and cultural importance. However, these are not the sole channel. The above-mentioned Association organizes an annual course of introduction into bell ringing. Photos, records and video tapes are used in order to students about various manners of bell ringing, required techniques and melodies performed by bells.

There exists a special web site that contains a lot of important information on bells, bell ringing, inventories, records, etc. It has 35.000 photos of bells, inventories of 7.000 bells and 2.500 bell towers, as well as about 200 examples of bell ringing recorded in MP3. The web site was created in 1996, when Internet was less popular. About 140.000 persons had an access to this web site so far (75 persons per day). It is a considerable number of users of the site specialized solely in bells and bell ringing.

The above-described activities of the bell ringing associations have contributed to transforming the bell ringing into a normal cultural action/event in our Comunitat Valenciana. It is still unusual for the rest of Spain, where people are replacing bell ringers by modern motors in bells. The hand bell ringing process must be continuously pursued: after the bells became motor/electricity driven, the ancient bell ringing traditions were disappeared for 20 or 30 years. Only much later, the process or restoration started in the comprehensive way. This restoration signifies not only physical and artistic restoration, but also restoration of authentic bell ringing as well as the participation of people in it and the appropriate recognition of the whole community.

International Workshop of Local Government Administrators
"Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and Participation of Young People"
31 October - 2 November 2006, Gangneung, Republic of Korea
LLOP i BAYO, Francesc
Generalitat Valenciana (2006)
  • VALÈNCIA: Campanes, campaners i tocs
  • Congressos, reunions científiques: Bibliografia
  • Restauració de campanes: Bibliografia
  • Francesc LLOP i BAYO: bibliografia


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