The bells of Prague


Prague is sometimes romantically called the City of a Hundred Spires. You can probably count even more overlooking the capital from Prague Castle or hills offering a view of the Vltava valley. Looking down on the city, the spires and towers rise up, and of course many of them have bells inside.

Gone are the days when bells were a practical necessity, calling believers to prayer, measuring the time of the day and announcing important news to the townsfolk. But there are still people who go up the church towers, pull the ropes and perform the art of bell ringing - that has not changed in centuries. In the last two decades in fact, the sound of bells has grown stronger.

I began my tour of the bells of Prague in the heart of the Old Town, at the church of St Havel. Just a few steps from a beaten sightseeing path between Wenceslas and Old Town Squares: the Baroque church, originally from the 14th century, is dedicated to a little-known saint – Havel - a popular patron saint during the Middle Ages. Jiří Mazal is the bell ringer at St Havel Church.

“We have the oldest bell in Prague here from 1455, made by an anonymous caster. It features an inscription in Old Czech and the reliefs of two saints. But today, we’ll hear another bell – St Havel, the biggest bell we have. It was cast in 1506 by Jan Cantarius who had his workshop here in the Old Town. The bell bears a Latin inscription, it weighs about 1,800 kilos and it has perfect tuning in f1. It’s really a well-made bell.”

Downstairs, Jiří Mazal told me he always wanted to ring bells, ever since he was a boy.

“I became a bell ringer because I’ve always liked bells, since I was a kid. I would listen to bells in front of the church, especially when I visited my grandmother in Moravia. And when I was in Prague, I missed them because they did not ring them much during communism. After 1989, I was wondering what the problem was, so I started asking around and found out why: they were in very bad condition, sometimes they were about to fall down. And I also discovered there were not enough people to ring the bells that were still up in the towers after the war.”

Communist authorities tolerated the Catholic Church, but their tolerance had limits. Any outreach to the community, such as bell ringing, was frowned upon. Today, Jiří Mazal is one of several dozen bell ringers who go up the stairs and ladders in church towers around Prague and beyond. He rings bells in St Havel and the Týn Church, both in the Old Town.

“So I went to the Our Lady Before Týn, and asked the priest why the bell there never rings. He said, ‘I can’t be standing in front of the altar and ring the bell up in the tower at the same time’. So I offered I would ring them, and he told me to go over here to St. Havel, which has three bells. And that’s where I started.”

Perhaps the most famous of Prague’s bells is the one that used to greet newly crowned Czech kings at Prague castle, and event rang when the first communist president Klement Gottwald was elected in 1948. It was a bell called Zikmund at St Vitus cathedral.

Zikmund was cast in Prague in 1549 and weighs around 15 tons which makes it the biggest bell in the country, and one of the biggest in Europe. It’s no longer used every day, and it takes up to six ringers to pull it off on special occasions, such as Christmas and Easter. It was also rung after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. There is an old legend about Zikmund: whenever its clapper cracks, the land will be hit by a disaster. Whether you believe legends or not, the last time this happened was in 2002, and a few month later Prague and other parts of Bohemia were affected by the worst floods in over a century.

Zikmund is one of four bells at the cathedral, together with Václav from 1542, John the Baptist from 1546, and Josef from 1602. Three other bells were confiscated during the First World War and were melted down to make guns.

The church of Sv. Štěpán (St. Stephen) lies at the edge of Štěpánská Street in New Town, just several blocks of Wenceslas Square. Outside, I met leading Czech campanologist, or expert on bells, Radek Lunga. He says that compared to 20 years ago, bell ringing has seen a revival.

“Before 1989, bells did not sound in so many churches, not as regularly and as often as today. When we started exploring Prague’s towers in the early 1990s, many of them had been undisturbed for many decades. For instance, the bell at Sv. Štěpán (St. Stephen) was not used for some 40 years. Not just irregularly, but not at all. Then there were many churches where the bells were left to their own fate – Sv. Vojtěch (St Adalbert), Salvátor, and so on. So the towers were dormant.”

St Stephen has only one bell, Štěpán. It was made in 1490 by a bell caster in Prague’s New Town. The bell does not in fact hang up in the church tower because the tower could not support more than two tons of the bell’s weight. In the separate-standing bell tower behind the church, we met the bell ringer, Vladimír Molík.

“In 2002 we fixed the bell, tightened it to the head because it was loose, and replaced the leather on the clapper. We also cleaned and oiled it, and that was all. We have been ringing the bell every week since then and nothing else needed to be fixed. Obviously it was very well made. If you look at the rim where the clapper hits, you’ll see it’s very smooth and clean. This bell is also great to ring – just one person can do it.”

Vladimír Molík started ringing bells back in the 1970s, and today works at a few other churches in Prague and central Bohemia with several colleagues. He says he taught himself how to ring bells.

“There are no courses. You learn by just doing it, trying to make it sound nice and regular. You also have to look for any technical problems there might be with the bell, so you have to be on guard. I’m here when the bell rings, and I can check for any problems, and I do the basic maintenance bell ringers usually do. That’s all.”

Radek Lunga, who began studying bells in the early 1990s, explains the sound of the bell after the last stroke says a lot about the quality of each bell.

“Reverberation is one of the musical qualities of bells by which you can tell the overall sound character of each bell. What we just heard was the short prime and the underlying octave – that was the humming. With this bell, the sound is really nice, long and voluminous.”

St Stephen was built in the 14th century by the Czech king, and future Emperor, Charles IV, as one of two parish churches for the newly founded New Town. The mighty sound of the Štěpán bell fills the nearby streets of what today is a busy urban area. With Czechs being reputedly one of the most atheist nations in Europe, I was wondering whether there are ever any complaints from the people in the surrounding residential blocks. Campanologist Radek Lunga says of course there are.

“Of course there are complaints about bell ringing. They are either provoked by the poor technical state of the bell, or by electric bell ringing which sometimes is musically not very nice. But some complaints are also ideologically motivated. These are in fact attacks against the Catholic Church and Christian activities generally. However, any complaint can be dealt with in a conciliatory way. Ringing can start later in the day, for example. On the other hand, there is the Charter of Human Rights which guarantees freedom of religion. And one of the ways the freedom is exercised is Catholic liturgy, and bell ringing is part of that.”

Štěpán is the only bell left at the bell tower behind St Stephen although there used to be as many as six. The wooden support frames, intact for several hundred years, held them on two floors. But all the berths except one are now empty. Radek Lunga explains.

“You see the bell tower here is huge, and you can very well observe here what you were asking about – the biggest losses of bells. There is room for three big bells, and only one is here, the biggest of them. The rest was lost during both world wars in what we call requisitions. This bell tower was full until 1916, and the bell set was typical for the immediate neighbourhood at that time. But in 1916 the requisition began which was a brutal measure to provide raw material for the war industry. In this bell tower, only the biggest bell was saved.”

Despite such heavy losses, some the bells that had already been collected for scrapping, were in the end saved.

“During the Second World War alone, around 14,000 bells were confiscated on the territory of what today is the Czech Republic. That’s a relatively high number because each church had one or two bells, so it was several thousand tons of bell metal. What happened was that here in Prague, hundreds of bells were collected near the river port and were waiting to be transported to Germany. That was around 1943 and 1944 when many of the arms factories had been bombed, had to stop production and were no longer receiving raw materials. So the bells remained in the warehouses, were they were found in 1945, and returned.”

Mr Lunga says that requisitions of bells during the wars meant that the surviving ones were even rarer and more precious objects of art.

“The requisitions make bells exclusive art monuments because no other kind of art objects was hit so hard by similar measures. After WWII, only some 20 percent of bells were preserved. That makes bells a special type of monument that need to be protected and looked after, and so does the tradition of manual ringing which is best for any bell, whether it comes from the 14th or the 21st century. Manual ringing is also best for the musical qualities of the bells.”

The next stop on our tour with campanologist Radek Lunga was the church of St Norbert, in Prague’s neighbourhood of Střešovice. The neo-Romanesque church was built in the late 19th century but the original bells had to be replaced.

“Here in the church of St. Norbert in Střešovice, the original set of bells from the late 19th century was confiscated. The church tower was empty until the end of the 1990s. In 2001, a 17th century bell from a church in Central Bohemia was moved here, and in 2006 a new bell was cast. So now there are two bells here that are used regularly.”

It might seem that bell ringing is easy – you just grip the rope and pull. In the church of St. Norbert in the Prague neighbourhood of Střešovice, bell ringer Jiří Dostál actually let me ring for a while. But before that, he gave me some advice.

“When you’re ringing a bell, the important thing is not to struggle with the bell, not to try to impose your will onto it, but rather to go with it, to catch its rhythm. If you do this, it comes back into your very soul.”

I’m not sure that was my case, but I asked Mr Dostál how long it would take someone like me to learn the art of bell ringing.

“It depends on your talents and predispositions. But I would say if somebody off street were to take it up, they’d be able to ring the bell before the mass after six months without embarrassing themselves. The difficult part though is the initial stage, and even more difficult is stopping the bell. That is because the bell should sound regularly with strokes until the last moment, and then fall silent. Likewise, just before you start ringing, the bell should be silent before the first stroke, and then ring regularly. That’s the trick of manual ringing, and that’s also how it’s different from electric ringing.”

Radek Lunga is in fact a big promoter of manual ringing. In this respect, the Czech lands differ from the neighbouring countries where most bell ringers have been replaced by electric machines.

“The Czech tradition of manual bell ringing is unique because it has been performed continuously for several hundred years and has not been replaced by electric ringing. In all neighbouring countries electric ringing was adopted over the last sixty years, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. In Austria and Germany for example, almost all bells are now rung using electricity and bell ringers are no longer needed.”

“The same trend has appeared in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary and also in France. In Bohemia and Moravia, many bells have been authentically preserved together with oak yokes and original forged clappers. Along with these elements, the tradition of manual ringing has also survived.”

Most bells that make it into history books or tourist guides are valued for their history and musical quality. But one church in Prague has a unique bell, although it fairly modern and its sound is not particularly striking. It’s a copy of the famous Liberty Bell from Philadelphia, made in 1918 to celebrate the foundation of independent Czechoslovakia. It hangs in the church of Sv. Antonín (St. Anthony of Padua), in the Prague area of Holešovice.

The story of the bell is indeed remarkable. Mr Lunga says it’s not clear what purpose the bell was meant to serve once brought over from the United States, or who paid for it.

“Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918 but several years later the bell ended up forgotten in Uzhhorod, which was then part of the country. We don’t know what the bell was used for then. Only in 1928, the bell was re-discovered there and moved to Prague. But again, nobody had any idea about what to do with it. The original Liberty Bell was used at a town hall, and so it might have been viable to use the Czechoslovak copy at the Old Town Hall. Nevertheless, it ended up in a warehouse.”

This was probably the reason why the bell escaped destruction during WWII. But it only became to be used regularly more than 60 years after it was cast.

“Then WWII broke out during which bells were requisitioned, but the Liberty Bell was hidden and saved. After the war, the time was not right either for putting it into use and the bell resurfaced in the mid 1950s in records of the Monument Preservation Institute. Its experts examined the bell and determined its tune. The institute also recommended the bell be hung in St. Antonín (St Anthony) Church in Holešovice, as all its bells had been requisitioned. The Liberty Bell was reportedly brought here to the church where they put it somewhere and didn’t use it. It only happened in the mid 1980s that it was hauled up to the tower and put into use.”

The Liberty Bell is somewhat hidden away in Holešovice, rarely sought out by anyone other than historians and bell experts. But let’s come back to Hradčany, next to Prague Castle, where thousands of tourists gather to listen to a special musical instrument – the Prague carillon.

Up in the octagonal tower at the Loreto church, above the clock, is a small, tin-plated shack for the player, where carillonist Jan Rejšek told me about the unusual instrument.

“This instrument has 27 bells that were cast in the Netherlands by the bell founder. The carillon was inaugurated in August 1659 during the feast of Virgin Mary, and nowadays it’s the only carillon in the Czech Republic.”

Every hour, the instrument mechanically plays a song revering Virgin Mary called We Greet You a Thousand Times. But the instrument can of course be played manually from the shack. When the American avant-garde musician Frank Zappa first came to Prague in 1990, he sat down and played the carillon himself.

When Frank Zappa arrived in Prague after the Velvet Revolution, it was possible once again to climb the stairs and ladders and play. Jan Rejšek says that even though he always wanted to play there, you couldn’t get up on the roof during communism.

“When I was 14, my parents and I went to the Netherlands and I liked carillons very much - the sound and the bells. It was my dream to play it, and this dream came true in 1989 when it was possible again, after the fall of communism, to play this very instrument. Before these changes it was not possible, as the tower was closed to the public because from here it’s possible to see a prison which was next to the Loreto church. That’s why it was closed but after the Velvet Revolution, it was possible again, and I began playing here regularly.”

The bells of Prague will continue to sound throughout the city for years to come. A new generation of bell ringers are keeping the art alive, and new bells are still cast to replace missing ones. So next time you come to the Czech capital, take a walk and enjoy the music flowing from hundreds of the city’s spires.