Frankfurt's Große Stadtgeläut (the town's great peal of bells) is said to be unique in the world. This event takes place on four afternoons every year, namely on the Saturday before the First Advent; on Christmas Eve; on the Saturday before Easter Sunday; and on the Saturday before Pentecost1. The 50 bells of the ten churches in the city centre are rung at the same time for about 30 minutes in harmony. Especially during Advent, many people go to the city centre to listen to the sound of all the bells. Depending on where you are, this can be almost deafening, but it is an experience you should try to make if you happen to be in Frankfurt on the right day!
The first documented 'Great Peal of Bells' took place on 28 and 29 October, 1347, in honour of the then recently deceased Louis IV of Bavaria, Holy Roman Emperor. Other occasions were ceremonies like elections of kings and elections and crownings of emperors and their entering of the city, or even Goethe's 100th birthday in 1849.
With the beginning of the Reformation in Frankfurt in 1533, the Lutheran Church became the Established Church. Other religious communities, especially the Catholic and the Reformed Church, weren't equal to the Lutheran churches which were financed and maintained by the City of Frankfurt.
A law passed in 1803 secularised2 churches in favour of the owners of the territories they were in. For Frankfurt, this meant that the Catholic collegiate churches of St Bartholomew (the Dom3), St Leonhard and Liebfrauen, as well as the Dominican monastery and the Carmelite convent with all their considerable wealth now belonged to the city. The maintenance of the buildings, equipment (such as organs and bells), and the payment of the staff was now the duty of the city. In 1830, two documents were signed, regulating these duties for the Protestant and the Catholic churches. This didn't bring much of a change for the Protestant churches, but took over 20 years before it eventually was confirmed law for the Catholic churches in 1856.
On 24 December, 1878, statutes (which are valid to this day) were decreed, governing the usage of the municipal bells by the Catholic congregation. The City Council reserved the right to use the complete peal of bells of the Dom for municipal or national public, non-religious purposes at all times. The City Council paid half of the staff needed to ring the bells4.
Over the centuries, governments changed, as did the endowment churches. Today, there are eight endowment churches in Frankfurt; five Protestant and three Catholic churches. On 6 May, 1856, the senate of the 'Free Town of Frankfurt' decided to have a peal of bells on four days a year from then on. This contract was confirmed several times, the last being in 1978.
On Saturday, 26 November, 2005, the bells remained silent. The town had allowed the shops to open on Sunday, first Advent, and the Protestant and Catholic churches considered this a clear breach of the contract from 1978. The Catholic Church called all its members to boycott the shops on Sunday. It was the first time since 1978 that a Große Stadtgeläut did not take place.
In 1438 the first bells were put up in the recently-built new tower of the Kaiserdom St. Bartholomäus. In the end it had ten bells, six of which belonged to the St Bartholomew Cathedral Chapter, the other four belonging to the town. The usage of the bells was a permanent bone of contention between the Catholic Cathedral Chapter and the City Council, especially after the introduction of the Reformation in Frankfurt. Three of the four 'city bells' announced the hour, the fourth was an alarm bell, which, together with a few other small bells, one of which rang the first mass at about 6.00am in the mornings, and announced the council meetings, were not part of the 'Great Peal of Bells'. The other six bells were only allowed to ring for liturgical purposes.
During a fire on 15 August, 1867, all Dom bells were destroyed. In 1877, the rebuilt Dom got new bells, with the 'Gloriosa' being the largest weighing in at a heavy 11.85 tonnes - making it one of the largest church bells in Germany. The nine bells have a total weight of 23.385 tonnes; five tonnes of bronze were salvaged from the debris of the destroyed bells, and another 13 tonnes were gleaned from looted cannons from the war with France in 1870 - 1.
On 22 March, 1878, the first Great Peal of Bells with the new Dom bells was held in honour of Emperor Wilhelm I's birthday.
All the Dom bells except the alarm bell (which was melted down in 1917) survived World War I unharmed. As early as 1940, all bronze bells in the Reich were confiscated to secure a long-term reserve of raw materials. Most of Frankfurt's church bells, amongst them eight of the dome bells, had to be delivered to a central collecting place for metal. In 1944, all dotation churches except for the Leonhard's Church were destroyed in the bombings. Miraculously, the dome bells had survived the war in their place on a Hamburger 'bell cemetery', and were brought back to Frankfurt in 1947.
The Paulskirche had been rebuilt in 1948, with a new set of bells. In 1954, the City of Frankfurt asked the Mainzer expert for bells and organs, Professor Paul Smets, to work out a concept for the new bells for the to-be rebuilt dotation churches. Smets suggested tuning all the bells harmoniously, with the nine-voiced, two-octave-spanning bells of the Cathedral as the basis. The dotation churches got bells with the tuning Smets had chosen - except for the Paulskirche with its three existing historic bells from 1685 and 1830 respectively, which hadn't been taken into account by the town. In 1987, three additional bells, in accordance with Smet's plan, were delivered and hung up. During the peal of bells on Pentecost, 1997, one of the historic bells from 1830 came loose, fell down and was completely destroyed. It was replaced with a new bell in 1998.
Today, the sound characteristics of all bells present themselves as follows:
- Dom: nine bells (1877): E°, A°, C#', e', F#', G#', A', B', C#"
- Katharinenkirche (1954): four bells: B°, D', E', F#'
- Paulskirche: six bells (three: 1987): F#°, B°, C#', E', (G'), (B')
- Liebfrauenkirche (1954): five bells: E', G', A', C", D"
- Nikolaikirche: four bells (1956): G#', B', C#", E"
- Leonhardskirche: six bells (1956): F#', A', B', C#", E", F#"
- Dreikönigskirche: five bells (1956): E', F#', G', A', B'
- Peterskirche: four bells (1964): C#', E', F#', G#'
- Heiliggeistkirche: three bells (1958): A', B', C#"
- Karmeliterkloster5 : four bells (1995): (C'''), (D'''), (F'''), (G''')
Where Do I Hear it Best?
There is no place where all bells can be heard at once, as the churches are spread over an area of about 1km2, with the Dreikönigskirche being on the other side of the river. So is the Deutschordenskirche with its four bells, which, although not part of the actual peal of bells, are likewise in harmony with the other bells. If the weather allows for it, it is best to walk from church to church to make the most of it. For all those people who don't have the opportunity of experiencing this magnificent event live, records and CDs with detailed explanations are available.