This weekend, October 29–31, renowned conductor Jader Bignamini leads the Houston Symphony in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The last movement, “Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath”, features offstage bells custom-made for the Symphony. Principal Percussion Brian Del Signore gives a demonstration of these bells, funded by the Beauchamp Foundation.
Houston Symphony: Can you tell us the history behind the bells?
Brian Del Signore: The bells for the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique were custom cast for the Houston Symphony and are made out of brass alloy. They are mounted upside down for this particular piece because of our need to be able to play them really precisely in the fifth movement.
The bells join during the funeral scene in the “Dream of the Witches Sabbath,” a very diabolical part in the music. The bells come in during the Dies irae pitched at C and G. The smaller bell weighs about 500 pounds and the larger weighs about a thousand pounds.
They come from the Royal Eijsbouts Foundry in the Netherlands that was established in 1872. These bells were cast in 2017, so we're really happy to bring them out to be used in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique for the first time.
Watch Brian demonstrate the bells. Notice how powerful they are and how difficult it is to stop the vibration of the huge and thick piece of metal.
HS: Will you be playing offstage? If so, how will you see the conductor?
BDS: These bells in this piece of music are traditionally played offstage so they sound in the distance. Although it's also fun to let the audience see them. However, the livestream concerts will see the bells since they'll have a camera backstage to let the livestream audience see what's going on.
In order to be able to play them backstage and see the conductor quite often, percussionists can try to see through a crack in the door or use a camera monitor. In this concert, they'll put a little camera on the stage so that I can see the conductor. This allows us to put the bells wherever we need them to achieve the acoustic sound we're looking for at a distance.