The celebrated opera singer Lo Svizzero was born in a belfry high in the Swiss Alps where his mother served as the keeper of the loudest and most beautiful bells in the land. Shaped by the bells’ glorious music, he possessed an extraordinary gift for sound. But when his preternatural hearing was discovered—along with its power to expose the sins of the church—young Moses Froben was cast out of his village with only his ears to guide him in a world fraught with danger.
Rescued from certain death by two traveling monks, he finds refuge at the vast and powerful Abbey of St. Gall. There, he becomes the protégé of the Abbey’s brilliant yet repulsive choirmaster, Ulrich. But it is this gift that will cause Moses’ greatest misfortune: determined to preserve his brilliant pupil’s voice, Ulrich has Moses castrated. Now, he will forever sing with the exquisite voice of an angel—a musico—yet castration is an abomination in the Swiss Confederation, and so he must hide his shameful condition from his friends and even from the girl he has come to love. When his saviors are exiled and his beloved leaves St. Gall for an arranged marriage in Vienna, he decides he can deny the truth no longer and he follows her—to sumptuous Vienna, to the former monks who saved his life, to an apprenticeship at one of Europe’s greatest theaters, and to the premiere of one of history’s most beloved operas.
Like the voice of Lo Svizzero, The Bells is a sublime debut novel that rings with passion, courage, and beauty.
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About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
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A Note to the Reader
I grew up as the son of a man who could not possibly have been my father. Though there was never any doubt that my seed had come from another man, Moses Froben, Lo Svizzero, called me “son.” And I
called him “father.” On the rare occasions when someone dared to ask for clarifi cation, he simply laughed as though the questioner were being obtuse. “Of course he’s not my son!” he would say. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
But whenever I myself gained the courage to ask him further of our past, he just looked at me sadly. “Please, Nicolai,” he would say after a moment, as though we had made a pact I had forgotten. With time, I came to understand I would never know the secrets of my birth, for my father was the only one who knew these secrets, and he would take them to his grave.
This aside, no child could have wished for more. I accompanied him from Venice to Naples and, fi nally, here, to London. Indeed, I
rarely left his side until I entered Oxford. Even after that, as I began my own, unrelated, career, at no time were we ever more than two months absent from each other’s company. I heard him sing in
Eu rope’s greatest opera houses. I sat beside him in his carriage as mobs of admirers ran alongside and begged him to grace them with a smile. Through all of this, I never knew anything of the poor Moses
Froben, but only of the renowned Lo Svizzero, who could make ladies swoon with a mere wave of his hand, who could bring an audience to tears with his voice.
And so you can imagine my surprise, a week after my father’s death last spring, to fi nd among his things this stack of papers. And more, to fi nd within them all I had sought to know: of my father’s birth and mine; of the origin of my name; of my mother; and of the crime that had kept my father silent.
Though he appears to have had me in mind as his reader, I cannot believe he did not wish these words for other eyes as well. This was a singer, remember, who practiced with an open window, so any man or woman passing on the street would have the chance to hear an angel sing.
London, October 6, 1806
First, there were the bells. Three of them, cast from warped shovels,
rakes, and hoes, cracked cauldrons, dulled ploughshares, one rusted stove, and, melted into each, a single golden coin. They were rough and black except along their silvery lips, where my mother’s mallets had struck a million strokes. She was small enough to dance beneath them in the belfry. When she swung, her feet leapt from the polished wooden planks, so that when the mallet met the bell, it rang from the bell’s crown to the tips of my mother’s pointed toes.
They were the Loudest Bells on Earth, all the Urners said, and though now I know a louder one, their place high above the Uri Valley made them very loud indeed. The peal could be heard from the waters of Lake Lucerne to the snows of the Gotthard Pass. The ringing greeted traders come from Italy. Columns of Swiss soldiers pressed their palms against their ears as they marched the Uri Road. When the bells began to sound, teams of oxen refused to move. Even the fattest men lost the urge to eat, from the quivering of their bowels. The cows that grazed the nearby pastures were all long since deaf. Even the youn gest herders had the dull ears of old men, though they hid in their huts morning, noon, and night when my mother rang her bells.
I was born in that belfry, above the tiny church. There I was nursed. When it was warm enough, there we slept. Whenever my mother did not swing her mallets, we huddled beneath the bells, the four walls of the belfry open to the world. She sheltered me from the wind and stroked my brow. Though she never spoke a word to me,
nor I to her, she watched my mouth as I babbled infant sounds. She tickled me so I would laugh. When I learned to crawl, she held my foot so I did not creep off the edge and fall to my death on the jutting rocks below. She helped me stand. I held a fi nger in each fi st, and she led me round and round, past each edge a hundred times a day. In terms of space, our belfry was a tiny world— most would have thought it a prison for a child. But in terms of sound, it was the most massive home on earth. For every sound ever made was trapped in the metal of those bells, and the instant my mother struck them, she released their beauty to the world. So many ears heard the thunderous pealing echo through the mountains. They hated it; or were inspired by its might; or were entranced until they stared blindly into space; or cried as the vibrations shook their sadness out. But they did not fi nd it beautiful. They could not. The beauty of the pealing was reserved for my mother, and for me, alone.
I wish that were the beginning: my mother and those bells, the Eve and Adam of my voice, my joys, and my sorrows. But of course that is not true. I have a father; my mother had one as well. And the bells,
too; they had a father. Theirs was Richard Kilchmar, who, one night in 1725, tottered on a table, so drunk he saw two moons instead of one.
He shut one eye and squished the other so the two moons resolved into a single fuzzy orb. He looked about: Two hundred men fi lled Altdorf’s square, in a town that was, and was proud to be, at the very center of the Swiss Confederation. These men were celebrating the harvest, and the coronation of the new pope, and the warm summer night. Two hundred men ankle- deep in piss- soaked mud. Two hundred men with mugs of acrid Schnapps burned from Uri pears.
Two hundred men as drunk as Richard Kilchmar.
“Quiet!” he yelled into the night, which seemed as warm and clear to him as the thoughts within his head. “I will speak!”
“Speak!” they yelled.
They were quiet. High above, the Alps shone in the moonlight like teeth in black, rotting gums.
“Protestants are dogs!” he yelled, raised his mug, and nearly stumbled off the table. They cheered and cursed the dogs in Zu rich,
who were rich. They cursed the dogs in Bern, who had guns and an army that could climb the mountains and conquer Uri if they wished.
They cursed the dogs in German lands farther north, who had never heard of Uri. They cursed the dogs for hating music, for defaming
Mary, for wishing to rewrite the Holy Book.
These curses, two hundred years dull in the capitals of Eu rope,
pierced Kilchmar’s heart. They brought tears to his eyes— these men before him were his brothers! But what could he reply? What could he promise them? So little. He could not build them a fort with cannons.
He was one of Uri’s richest men, but still, he could not afford an army. He could not soothe them with his wisdom, for he was not a man of words.
Then they all heard it, the answer to his silent plea. A ringing that made them raise their bleary eyes toward heaven. Someone had climbed the church’s belfry and tolled the church’s bell. It was the most beautiful, heartaching sound Richard Kilchmar had ever heard.
It resounded off the houses. It echoed off the mountains. The peal tickled his swollen belly. When the ringing ceased, the silence was as warm and wet as the tears Kilchmar rubbed from out his eyes.
He nodded at the crowd. Two hundred heads nodded back at him.
“I will give you bells,” he whispered. He sloshed his drink at the midnight sky. His voice rose to a shout. “I will build a church to house them, high up in the mountains, so the ringing echoes to every inch of Uri soil! They will be the Loudest and Most Beautiful Bells Ever!”
They cheered even more loudly now than they had before. He raised his arms in triumph. Schnapps washed his brow. Then he and every man plunged their eyes into the bottom of their mugs and drank them empty, sealing Kilchmar’s pledge.
As he drank the fi nal drop, Kilchmar stumbled back, tripped,
and fell. He spent the rest of the night lying in the mud, dreaming of his bells.
He awoke to a circle of blue sky ringed by twenty reverent faces.
“Lead us!” they implored him.
Their veneration seemed to lift him to his feet, and after six or eight swigs from their fl asks, he felt more weightless still. Soon he found himself on his horse leading a pro cession: fi fty horses; several carts fi lled with women; children and dogs darting through the grasses. Where to lead them he did not know, for until that day he’d found the mountains menacing and hostile. But now he led them up the Uri Road toward Italy, toward the pope, toward snowfi elds glittering in the sun, and then, when inspiration took him, turned off and began to climb.
Up and up they went, almost to the cliffs and snow. Kilchmar now led fi ve hundred Urners, and they followed him until they reached a rocky promontory and beheld the valley stretched before them, the river Reuss a thin white thread stitching it together.
“Here,” he whispered. “Here.”
“Here,” they echoed. “Here.”
They turned then to regard the tiny village just below them, a mere jumble of squalid houses. The villagers and their scrawny cows stared back in awe at the assemblage on the rocky hill.
This tiny, starved village I write of is Nebelmatt. In this village I
was born (may it burn to the ground and be covered by an avalanche).
Kilchmar’s church was completed in 1727, built of only Uri sweat and
Uri stone, so that, in the winter months, no matter how much wood was wasted in the stove, the church remained as cold as the mountain upon which it was built. It was a stocky church, shaped something like a boot. The bishop was petitioned for a priest well suited to the frigid and lonesome aspects of the post. His reply came a few days later in the form of a young priest scowling at Kilchmar’s door— a learned father
Karl Victor Vonderach. “Just the man,” read the bishop’s letter, “for a posting on a cold, distant mountain. Do not send him back.”
Now the church had a master, twelve rustic pews, and a roof that kept out a good deal of the rain, but it still did not have what Kilchmar had promised them. It did not have its bells. And so Kilchmar packed his cart, kissed his wife, and said he would undertake an expedition to St. Gall to fi nd the greatest bell maker in the Catholic world. He rumbled off northward to patriotic cries, and was never seen in Uri again.
The building of the church had ruined him.
And so, one year after the last slate had been laid on its roof, the church built to house the Loudest and Most Beautiful Bells Ever did not even have a cowbell hanging in its belfry.
Urners are a proud and resourceful folk. How hard can it be to make a bell?
they thought. Clay molds, some molten metal, some beams on which to hang the fi nished bells— nothing more. Perhaps God had sent them Kilchmar only to set them on their way.
God needs your iron, went the call. Bring Him your copper and your tin.
Rusted shovels, broken hoes, corroded knives, cracked cauldrons—
all of these were thrown into a pile that soon towered over Altdorf’s square on the very spot where Kilchmar had sealed his pledge three years before. Crowds cheered every new donation. One man lugged the stove that should have kept him warm that winter. God bless her, was the murmur when an old widow tossed in her jewelry. Tears fl owed when the three best families gathered to contribute three golden coins. Ten oxcarts were needed to transport the metal to the village.
The villagers, though they had little metal of their own to offer,
would not be outdone. As they minded the makeshift smelter for nine days and nights, they contributed what ever Schnapps remained in their fl asks at daybreak, plus a full set of wolf’s teeth, a carved ibex horn, and a dusty chunk of quartz.
Twelve men were scarred for life with burns the day they poured the glowing soup into the molds. The fi rst bell was as round as a fat turkey, the second, large enough to hide a small goat beneath it, and the third, the extraordinary third bell, was as high as a man and took sixteen horses to hoist into the belfry.
All of Uri gathered on the hill below the church to hear the bells ring for the fi rst time. When all was set, the crowd turned their reverent eyes to Father Karl Victor Vonderach. He stared back at them as if they were merely a fl ock of sheep.
“A blessing, Father?” one woman whispered. “Would you bless our bells?”
He rubbed his temples and then stepped before the crowd. He bowed his head, and everyone else did the same. “Heavenly Father,”
he croaked through the spittle gathered in his throat. “Bless these bells that You have—” He sniffed and looked around him, and then glanced down at his shoe, which rested in a moist cake of dung.
“Damn them all,” he muttered. He stalked back through the crowd.
They watched his form until it vanished into his house, which had glass in its windows, but no slates yet on its roof.
Then the silent crowd turned to watch seven of Kilchmar’s cousins march resolutely into the church— one to ring the smallest, two the middle, and four the largest bell. Many in the crowd held their breath as, in the belfry, the three great bells began to rock.
And then the Loudest and Most Beautiful Bells Ever began to ring.
The mountain air shuddered. The pealing fl ooded the valley. It was as shrill as a rusty hinge and as rumbling as an avalanche and as piercing as a scream and as soothing as a mother’s whisper. Every person cried out and fl inched and threw his hands over his ears.
They stumbled back. Father Karl Victor’s windows cracked. Teeth were clenched so hard they chipped. Ear drums burst. A cow, two goats,
and one woman felt the sudden pangs of labor.
When the echoes from the distant peaks fi nally faded, there was silence. Every person stared at the church as if it might collapse. Then the door burst open and the Kilchmar cousins poured out, their palms held to their ruined ears. They faced the crowd like thieves caught with trea sure in their stockings.
Then the cheering began. Hands rose toward heaven. Fists shook. Tears fl owed. They had done it! The Loudest Bells Ever had been rung!
God’s kingdom on earth was safe!
The crowd retreated slowly down the hill. When someone yelled,
“Ring them again!” there was a collective cringe, and soon began a stampede— men, women, children, dogs, and cows ran, slid, rolled down the muddy hill and hid behind the decrepit houses as if trying to outrun an avalanche. Then there was silence. Several heads peered around the houses and toward the church. The Kilchmar cousins were nowhere to be found. Indeed, soon there was no one within two hundred paces of that church. There was no one brave enough to ring the bells again.
Or was there? Whispers fi lled the air. Children pointed at a brown smudge moving lightly up the hill, like a knot of hay, blown by a gentle wind. A person? No, not a person. A child— a little girl— in dirty rags.
It so happened that this village possessed, among its trea sures, a deaf idiot girl. She was wont to stare down the villagers with a haunting glare, as though she knew the sins they fought to hide, and so they drove her off with buckets of dirty wash water whenever she came near. This deaf child was staring at the belfry as she climbed the hill,
for she, too, had heard the bells, not in her vacant ears, but as we hear holiness: a vibration in the gut.
They all watched her climb, knowing that God had sent this idiot girl to them, just as God had sent them Kilchmar, had sent them the stone to build this church, and the metal to cast the bells.
She looked upward at the belfry as though she wished that she could fly.
“Go,” they whispered. “Go.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. Harvell begins his novel with a letter from the narrator’s son Nicolai, in which we learn a great deal, including that Nicolai never knew his mother and that in 1806 Moses is a famous singer. How does this affect our experience of the novel? How would the novel be different with these two pages torn out?
2. Moses’ years at the Abbey of St. Gall are tumultuous and fraught with pain. But would you say he wishes Nicolai had never brought him there? What does he gain from the abbot and abbey? Aside from the obvious in his castration, what does he lose?
3. Moses calls Ulrich “the architect of my tragedy” (208). And yet, his life would have been so different had he never been castrated—we certainly would not be reading the story of this famous singer. Is his regret complete? Does he blame Ulrich? How would his life have been different had he not been castrated?
4. In an interview, Richard Harvell says, “I first planned Nicolai and Remus, as two cruel monks, and then, as I wrote, they just wouldn’t be mean, no matter what I tried. I had to make them good. I am very thankful for that.” Why are Remus and Nicolai so important to Moses’ story? Why do you think Harvell is so thankful that they are not ‘mean’?
5. “This is not magic,” Harvell writes (14). “He cannot hear through mountains or to the other side of the earth. This is merely selection. The selection of sounds, the dissection of sounds, is something he can do like no other. This his mother and her bells have gifted him.” How would you describe Moses extraordinary hearing ability? Is this magic? How does Moses’ hearing influence his destiny?
6. While Harvell uses many visual images in the book, there are many descriptive passages relying on sound. “The one-eyed idiot’s howling, the rattle of the coppers in the leper’s wooden bowl, the creak of the warped wagon wheel, the hissing of a black cat plucked of half its fur by some disease” (217). How does description through sound add to the novel?
7. Gaetano Guadagni is one of the many historical figures in the novel. Is he a villain, or is he, as he always claims to be, Moses’ “fratello” (brother)?
8. One reviewer claimed that The Bells “earns its operatic tone” (Kirkus Reviews). What might be meant by ‘operatic tone’? In what other ways is the novel like an opera?
9. The narration is told in the first person, by the mature Moses, but told through the eyes of a child and, later, a young castrato. How is the novel influenced by the two perspectives? When does it swerve toward one or the other?
10. “I promise you as your faithful witness,” Moses swears (page 14). But does Moses always tell the complete, unbiased truth? Here is one example when his bias leaks through: “In this village I was born (may it burn to the ground and be covered by an avalanche)” (page 6). Where else does this happen?
11. The novel is clearly inspired by the Orpheus myth. How is Moses’ and Amalia’s love story like the Orpheus myth and how is it different?
12. The child Nicolai was destined for great fortune as a Riecher. So why does Moses kidnap his “son”? Should we blame him for this decision?
13. In his nocturnal wanderings in St. Gall, Moses understands that he has traded the ability to love, and to be loved, for the ability to sing like an angel. “All at once, the musico’s exchange made sense. We had given up this song of union for a song that we must sing alone” (page 163). How does singing replace love? And how does it not?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Well written book, good development of characters, the story is easy to follow. I had read several books of Castrati in Opera, and considered this one to be a great historical-fiction of that bygone era. Great addition to my library. This story could make a very interesting film.
Moses' mother grew up on the outskirts of the village, an outcast. Deaf from birth, she was presumed to be an idiot and insane. Filthy and unwashed, no one wanted her around, and they would beat her and chase her away. She had a baby, unnamed since she was unable to speak a name, but she was a good mother and did her best by him as they scavenged for their survival, and she raised Moses in the belfry with the church bells. She loved the bells, the vibrational tones of which caressed her body in a hug when no one else would.Moses, born unnamed, does not acquire his name until later in life. He spends much of his childhood in a church belfry where his mother plays the bells. Due to her deafness, his mother can tolerate the sound of the bells, which is so loud that it will burst the ear drums of the rest of the villagers if they get too close. However, having been raised in the belfry, Moses is immune to the effects of the bells. Where his mother lived in a world of silence, Moses lives immersed in a world of sound.There is an innocence to Moses-- a purity. Moses loses his mother and is taken in at a monastery as a young boy. The monastery is run by an abbot by the name of Staudach. A stern disciplinarian, his heart is usually in the right place, but often he goes about it the wrong way.Moses' best friends are two monks. Nicolai is a large light-hearted, generally jovial monk who has a liking for wine (think ¿Friar Tuck¿ from Robin Hood), but he can be fierce and forthright when he feels pushed to it. Nicolai becomes something of a father to Moses, and even gives him his name.Nicolai's best friend is Remus- a bookish monk who is a quiet loner. A peaceful man, he boasts a hidden strength.Moses is given into the care of choir leader Uhlrich, the creepy old man of the story. Even though his ¿lust¿ for Moses seems to be musical rather than sexual (as he instead lusts after the voice of Moses), he is a creepy, lascivious old man.While at the monastery, Moses meets and befriends Amalia, daughter of the town's wealthiest family. Spirited and spunky, passionate and idealistic, early on in their relationship, Amalia keeps Moses guessing, never quite sure where he stands with her. This was a very moving story. I often found myself moved to tears, distraught and frustrated. Unfortunately there weren¿t many happy moments to make me smile and fill me with joy, as much of the book was quite tragic, but it was moving nonetheless.Lovely prose and lyrical descriptions, yet totally "approachable" writing style. A captivating story, fully-fleshed out characters, and unusual subject matter carried me through to the end. Strongly recommended!
I wish I could give this story 100 stars. I absolutely LOVED it and can easily say it is one of the best reads of the year for me (and it is September already). What an original, clever plot.A young boy with a gift for sound, is raised by a deaf/mute mother in the Swiss mountains. After a tragedy, he is saved by two monks who take him to an abbey where the beauty of his voice is realized. A tormented choirmaster goes to horrific lengths to preserve his voice. Meanwhile, the young boy, Moses, finally discovers friendship and eventually love in Amalia. Thus begins an adventure to find his lost love, as well as his place in the world.The characters were wonderful, as well. A humble, angelic singer named Moses, two monks, one kindhearted, the other, irritable and abrasive, the beautiful but crippled Amalia, a dwarf who works in the theater. The story also has it's share of villains, an evil Countess, a murderous father and the choirmaster who will stop at nothing to keep Moses's voice for himself.This story gave me chills. It was that good. As I was reading, I kept imagining what an amazing movie this would make.I don't want to spoil too much of the plot, but you must read this book. If this is the authors first novel, then we have an extremely talented writer to be on the look out for! I stay up way too late reading this book and I am actually disappointed I finished it already. I HIGHLY recommend this book!
This is a somewhat fantastic novel about a famous castrato opera singer in the 18th century. He was born to a deaf/mute mother who rings the loudest bells in Switzerland and is raised in the belfry until his is about nine years old when his real father (of course it's the local priest) tries to kill him by throwing him in the river. He is rescued by two monks who take him to the Abbey of St. Gall where his singing talent is discovered by the talented, but sinister choir master Ulrich. Not wanting to lose this marvelous voice, Ulrich has the young boy castrated. Now he will forever sing like an angel, but will never be able to be a real man.Later as he leaves the monastery and travels to Vienna in search of the woman he really loves, he meets up with another famous castrato opera singer and plots to get his lover back.Although well researched, this novel seems more like fantasy than a realistic tale. I could appreciate it for the background in musical history, but found it hard to really involve myself fully with the characters or the plot.
The Bells has monasteries and monks, an orphan, grand music, and romance, requited and not. What's not to love? The boy's mother was the deaf and mute ringer of the loudest (and most terrible) bell in the world. His early years were spent with her in the bell tower where the clear tones of the bells filled his soul with music. After his mother died the boy ran for his life--which he almost lost in a river. Fortunately two monks happened by, pulled him from the river, named him Moses, and took him back to their monastery where they raised him like a son. Ranging from high in the Swiss Alps to the grand theater in Vienna, Harvell creates an 18th Century so filled with the sound of music (did I just say that?) that the reader almost can hear the soundtrack. Moses' voice was that of an angel, when the choir sings,the reader can almost feel it, and then there's the opera!This reviewer captures perfectly how The Bells made me feel: "One of the most difficult feats Harvell accomplishes in "The Bells" is capturing the physical experience of music. It warms necks and backs, resonates in jaws and temples, and rings in chests and legs. Music fights with death, seduces a woman, guides a thief and ultimately triumphs in love"The Washington Post, Nancy Robertson (Oct 9, 2010)If music does this to you, give The Bells a try!
The Bells gave me the motivation to actually listen to things and try to truly 'hear' them like the character Moses. Though I enjoyed the lyrical descriptions of how he 'heard' things, after the 20th or so narration of Moses 'hearing 'another sound, it became a bit much. Other than that, I liked the characters and the story, though once Moses became friends with Amelia at the beginning of the book, the 'mystery' of the castrato's son that was mentioned on the back of the book became pretty obvious.
The celebrated opera singer Lo Svizzero was born in a belfry high in the Swiss Alps where his mother served as the keeper of the loudest and most beautiful bells in the land. Shaped by the bells' glorious music, as a boy he possessed an extraordinary gift for sound. But when his preternatural hearing was discovered-along with its power to expose the sins of the church-young Moses Froben was cast out of his village with only his ears to guide him in a world fraught with danger. Rescued from certain death by two traveling monks, he finds refuge at the vast and powerful Abbey of St. Gall. There, his ears lead him through the ancient stone hallways and past the monks' cells into the choir, where he aches to join the singers in their strange and enchanting song. Suddenly Moses knows his true gift, his purpose. Like his mother's bells, he rings with sound and soon, he becomes the protégé of the Abbey's brilliant yet repulsive choirmaster, Ulrich. But it is this gift that will cause Moses' greatest misfortune: determined to preserve his brilliant pupil's voice, Ulrich has Moses castrated. Now a young man, he will forever sing with the exquisite voice of an angel-a musico-yet castration is an abomination in the Swiss Confederation, and so he must hide his shameful condition from his friends and even from the girl he has come to love. When his saviors are exiled and his beloved leaves St. Gall for an arranged marriage in Vienna, he decides he can deny the truth no longer and he follows her-to sumptuous Vienna, to the former monks who saved his life, to an apprenticeship at one of Europe's greatest theaters, and to the premiere of one of history's most beloved operas. In this confessional letter to his son, Moses recounts how his gift for sound led him on an astonishing journey to Europe's celebrated opera houses and reveals the secret that has long shadowed his fame: How did Moses Froben, world renowned musico, come to raise a son who by all rights he never could have sired?Harvell's prose is beautiful. It takes a few pages to get into the rhythm of his words but is worth the time. The detail helps transport the reader to a small village in the Alps as Moses tells the story of his life. The synopsis provides a rough outline of the story but getting from Point A to Point Z is by turns heartbreaking and joyous. I wouldn't hesitate to read another novel by Harvell.
The Bells tells the story of Moses, a boy born to a deaf-mute outcast in a small village in the Swiss alps. Moses's greatest attributes are his ears which allow him to hear increadably well and his voice which appears perfect and leads to his castration to preserve it.What I liked about this book was the description of sound. Moses uses his ears more than his eyes to navigate through life and this continuously appears through the the book where places are described as much or more by sound then by what they look like. The book was an enjoyable read, I felt there were a couple of loose ends in the story toward the end of the book but they did not detract from the overall story.
The Bells is a wonderful example of historical fiction. It tells the story of a young orphan with an incredible ability to experience music and tone in an amazing manner. Recognizing his unique skill and passion for song, he is forcibly castrated in an effort to preserve his voice. His relationships with two monks and a privileged young woman is examined in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the story being told but felt it sometimes got lost in the overly-flowery language. The writing sometimes appeared repetitive and I found myself skipping over parts of the text. I do enjoy descriptive writing but I felt at times it was just too much. It was a good book, however, and I would recommend it to others.
I *loved* this book and could barely put it down once I started reading it. There are some great villains, very unique motivations for characters in the story, and above all, Harvell creates a tale that emphasizes the beauty of friendship in many different ways.In some ways, The Bells reminded me of Suskin's "Perfume." Moses, the protagonist, hears and experiences sound in a much deeper way than the rest of us. Harvell describes Moses's sense of hearing, and the minute sounds that he hears, in a detailed but beautiful way - the sounds really came alive for me. I experienced them with Moses, rather than just reading about his experience.Towards the end of the novel, I realized that the best way to categorize The Bells would be as a romance, but it isn't cheesy or overdramatic. The romance between Moses and the love of his life, Amelia, is important, but we also admire the romance between Moses and sound, and Moses and his unlikely but closest friends. I found there was a lot of suspense, as well, and very original good vs. evil plotlines.
In the past six months, books added to my TBR list have been influenced by the buzz I see on Twitter. The Bells is a perfect example of this situation. In turns out this book is also my book club pick for the upcoming year (we aren't officially reading/discussing till June). I liked how the story was told from Moses' perspective after he passed away via a letter to his son Nicolai. Without giving too much away, I really was hoping for more about Moses' career in Venice at the opera. As a singer myself, I found the description of how Moses felt went he sang -vibrations & making others vibrate/hum - very fascinating. Those passages made me go back and reread multiple times and try to imagine Moses' singing.I did feel some of the "opportunities" that Moses got seemed a little unrealistic. Overall though I liked how the historical aspects of the book were interwoven into the fictional plot. In a way this book offers a view into the creative side of an opera that patrons of opera might not always see. Including a well-known composer - Christoph Gluck - within the story allowed the reader to see how a composer might interact with a singer or producer of an opera.While there is some sensitive subject matter addressed within the book, I would recommend this book to singers and lovers of opera or even just readers who love a good romance story.
This is the story of Moses, a boy living with his deaf mother high on a mountain in a church built specially to house beautiful bells that ring deafeningly throughout the valley below. The townspeople believe, that Moses is deaf, and simple-minded as well, living so close to these earsplitting bells, but he isn't, in fact he has extraordinarily acute hearing and circumstances arise that lead him out into the world to make his own way.Moses is rescued by two kind monks and taken to their abbey where he learns to sing. He is blessed with a remarkable, beautiful voice and even though it is against the law, his choir master has him castrated to keep this voice forever.The story follows his young life and the twists and turns that happen to him and I found myself rooting for him - "Go Moses!" I couldn't help but compare it to Patrick Suskind's Perfume with it's focus on a specific sense, hearing this time, instead of smell. But while Perfume revolted me at times with the perversion of the main character, The Bells was uplifting with the joy of music, how it brought tears to people's eyes and beauty to the world and Moses is very likeable.
This story starts out with Moses Froben as a young child. Moses was born to a deaf woman who wrang the bells of a church in the Swiss Alps.When Moses becomes orphaned, he is rescued by two monks who take him to the abbey to live. It is here that they discover that Moses has an incredible voice and he is castrated in order to preserve his voice. When Moses grows up, he falls in love with a woman that he can never have, and his pursuit of this woman takes him to Vienna and to the world of the opera. I wasn't sure how I wanted to rate this book because I loved the first half but found the second half a bit boring. I thought the character of Moses did not develop when he grew to adulthood. Behaviour that was suitable for a child was not acceptable for the adult character. I found him foolish, rash and one dimensional and I started to lose interest in what became of him. Overall, it was a generally good story, but I think it could have been so much more than that with a little more character develpment in the main character.
¿Such music! Opera! How could I waste a moment with a book!¿ says Nicolai, the protector of our hero. How ironic. Although the writing is at times contrived, the power of visceral sound that reverberates from the pages of The Bells is astounding. If you are a lover of theatrics and sumptuous opera, this book is for you. Overwrought with all of the excesses we revel in on the opera stage, this opera lover read the book more with my ears than my eyes.Moses, the protagonist, is a singer whose unusual auditory gifts were sharpened by the resonance of church bells rung by his deaf mother. As a young boy, Moses gloried in the sensations and success of his singing, wanting to be like the beautiful music he sang, with no clue of the ramifications of that success. Forbidden romance, brilliant singing, conspiracy and the search for identity round out his life.Author Richard Harvell, inspired by his wife¿s singing, Swiss cowbells and a recording of Gregorian chant, dug his heels into extensive research of 18th century opera and church music. I compliment his use of cliffhangers and his phenomenal knowledge of acoustics and musicology. For my taste, however, he overdid the use of auditory stimulation in his writing.This book is striking, horrifying, sensual and mesmerizing. If you enjoy melodrama, you will revel in The Bells.Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
I wanted to start my review of this book off with quotes from its magnificent contents - but unfortunately I was reading an advanced copy of it so this is not an option.As a music student there are times I pick up a book with a musical theme and, more often than not, I end up disappointed. This can be for a few reasons: the authors naivety when it comes to the skill and discipline, the lack of research placed in musical history (relying instead on a few famous names and works). Richard Harvell did not disappoint me. THE BELLS is the story of a young boy, the son of a deaf-mute woman who lives, for all intents and purposes, in the belfry of a church. She "hears" the vibrations of the bells; sounds that would deafen anyone else that came close to them. But Moses, her son, is far from deafened. Instead hearing these bells in her womb has given him an extraordinary ability - but one that leads to a life of pain and uncertainty.Richard Harvell approaches the custom of castrating young boys to preserve their soprano voices with a heavy, knowledgeable hand. This is not light-hearted historical fiction. This is fiction that reminded me of Follett's "Pillars of the Earth". It's detailed, horrifying and so amazingly fascinating I had a difficult time putting the book down. In speaking to a friend recently she was shocked that this custom existed. It made me realize that, to many who do not have a musical background, this is a custom that is frequently overlooked when reading and writing historical stories. But can you blame us? This is not something that would be an easy or enlightening topic. Up until the early 19th century the castrati performed due to women not being allowed to sing. While the church took the official disapproving stance on this the opera theaters worshiped these men as angels. This is a book - a story that sits on me heavily. It is not something I can easily set aside while moving on to the next book on the list. This is a book I need to talk to others about and encourage them to check out once it is made available. If you love historical fiction I recommend you do so as well.
"Of course, it is for love that opera lives, for which its temples are built in every city. And soon I was like those mobs of Italian men who go without supper for a week so they can afford a single ticket."The Bells is one of the most beautifully written books I've read in a long time. While the plot tells the story of a young orphaned boy with a stunning voice forced into the life of the castrati, it is really an ode to music. Nothing I say could possibly do it justice....If you love wonderful books and transcendent music, do yourself a favor; dpon't let too much more time go by without reading The Bells (by Richard Harvell).
Good book. Had a hard time putting it down at times
I enjoyed this book a lot more than I anticipated. The blurb on the back of the book made it sound a little kooky, but the story itself was engaging. I felt it ended too abruptly -- I would have liked to see the conclusion fleshed out a bit more instead of wrapped up with a "40 years later" round-up of characters. Overall, a good read.
Well-written with good character development and historical accuracy as to the period. Interesting regarding the castrati role. Piqued my interest in that subject.
I found this to be a good read. Nothing more, nothing less.
It's a good read. Put me in mind of a fairy tale. Didn't think I was going to like this book club selection, but I did very much. Enjoy!