As we approach that “most wonderful time” of the year, percussionists around the globe begin dusting off their sleigh bells in preparation for playing repertoire of the holiday season and while much of the rep is modern, the fact is that the utilization of sleigh bells predates their inclusion in the percussive battery.
One of the earliest uses of sleigh bells in the classical repertoire can be found in Mozart’s “Three German Dances”. This work, composed in 1791, has three movements, the last of which, “Schlittenfahrt” (translated: Sleighride) features tuned sleigh bells (C-E-F-G-A), typically played by three percussionists. Additionally, Gustav Mahler’s use of sleigh bells in his “Symphony #4” and Sergei Prokofiev’s utilization of sleigh bells in the “Lt. Kijé Suite” are two other examples of composers effectively writing for sleigh bells. As someone who has played these works many times, (not to mention playing Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride over 1,200 times), I feel more than qualified to address the subject.
Did you ever wonder how the sound of sleigh bells became so closely associated with the Christmas holiday? I have. This curiosity has led me to research the history behind the use of sleigh bells as a mainstay in Christmas repertoire. The undisputable fact is that sleigh bells long predate their affiliation with the holiday season.
It may surprise you to learn that the sleigh bells, also called jingle bells or Christmas bells, played a functional role many years prior to being used musically by percussionists. To fully understand how sleigh bells were used outside of the concert hall, we first need to head down to the garage, uncover the Delorean, and travel back in time to an era prior to the advent of the automobile (or horseless carriage as it was originally called). Roughly speaking, that brings us back over 130 years to 1893. Prior to the widespread adoption of the automobile as a means of transportation, the ubiquitous modes of transportation were trains and horse drawn carriages.
Carriages of the pre-automobile era were pulled by one or more horses, naturally producing sounds which served as an audible warning to pedestrians in the roadway. The metronomic “clip-clop” sound of a horse’s hoofs impacting the road alerted walkers of an approaching carriage, providing ample time to stand aside. (Percussionists are often called on to reproduce this sound using coconut halves on a wooden base or with two temple blocks.) The same cannot be said for snow covered roads. Not only does a layer of snow effectively muffle the sounds of horse hoofs and steel rim wheels against cobblestone, but a blanket of fresh snow also effectively absorbs all background sounds which is why it seems so quiet immediately after a snowstorm.
While horse drawn carriages can be rendered unsafe on slippery snow-covered streets, sleighs are a very effective mode of travel in winter, especially during a time when there was no way to clear snow from roadways. The smooth metal runners beneath sleighs effectively glide effortlessly and silently over snow and ice-covered roads. While picturesque, this paints a rather dangerous picture due to the inability of pedestrians to be audibly forewarned of an approaching sleigh.
As you might have guessed, in winter sleigh bells were added to a horse’s leather harness so that an approaching sleigh can adequately be heard by both pedestrians and approaching sleighs. In the same way that today’s (silent) electric vehicles have external speakers which produce a beeping sound to warn pedestrians when backing up, small bells attached to a harness were used on horse drawn sleighs to warn pedestrians in harm’s way. Rather ironic, don’t you think?
Sleigh bells were not invented in the nineteenth century. We know that various types of bells were used around the world as far back as the biblical era. What we know as modern sleigh bells evolved from these ancient bells. Traditionally, sleigh bells were manufactured from cast bronze, and were available in many different sizes. The J.C. Deagan company offered tuned sets of sleigh bells (see photo), mostly for vaudevillian novelty acts, but thanks to Mr. Mozart’s inclusion in his 1791 composition, we know that tuned sleigh bells were available prior to the rise of the vaudeville era.
Today, most sleighbells are manufactured from stamped sheet steel, a process dating back to the late 1800’s and a method of fabrication that is significantly faster and much less costly than casting bronze. Here in the United States sleighbell manufacturers sprouted up in Connecticut, where numerous companies once operated. Bevin Bell is one of the last of the remaining enterprises still manufacturing bells domestically.
A holiday tradition – debunked.
As the song goes, “Dashing through the snow…,” well, you know the rest, but what you may not know is that the quintessentially popular holiday song was originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh”.
One Horse Open Sleigh was written around 1857 by James Lord Pierpont in (arguably) Medford, Massachusetts – a Boston suburb. Legend has it that the song was written to commemorate the popular open sleigh races that were held in Medford at the time. The song was republished in 1859 by the Oliver Ditson and Company in Boston with the new title “Jingle Bells.”
What’s troubling is the sordid history of “Jingle Bells” itself. It is dedicated to John P. Ordway, a musician, and owner of “Ordway’s Aeolians,” one of Boston’s nineteenth century minstrel troupes (an “entertainment” genre that while popular at the time, is undeniably abhorrent by modern standards).
According to Boston University historian Kyna Hamill, Pierpont was a near-do-well and, “Everything about the song is churned out and copied from other people and lines from other songs—there’s nothing original about it.” You may learn much more about the song’s questionable history at: https://www.bu.edu/articles/2016/jingle-bells-history/.
So, this holiday season, while chestnuts are roasting on an open fire and before Santa Claus comes to town, you can impress your friends and family with this little tidbit of forgotten sleigh bell history!
As for me, I plan to replace the backup warning system on my Polestar 2 with a new set of sleigh bells.