SAXTONS RIVER, Vt. – Imagine a Christmas-card setting: a quiet village blanketed in snow as evening falls, golden light streaming from the windows of the big white church, and the sound of bright, beautiful bells chiming a Christmas carol.
On this Monday night in December you have not walked into a dream, but rather the rehearsal of the Saxtons River Bell Choir as they prepare for another of their holiday concerts.
“We’ve had several concerts already, here at Christ Church, at the Dummerston Congregational Church, and for the Santa’s Express train in Chester.” said Mary Jane Bosworth, the director of the bell choir. “Our next concerts are at the Springfield Congregational Church on Dec. 11 at 4 p.m. and on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, at 6:30 here at Christ Church before the 7 p.m. Christmas Eve service.”
Bosworth, a retired music teacher who has directed the bell choir since its beginning in 1989, says she loves to work with the group.
“They are all so dedicated and enthusiastic,” she said. “They come here every Monday night for a two-hour rehearsal and they really work together beautifully. You can hear it in the music.”
The Saxtons River Bell Choir began in the late 1980s when the church received memorial gifts in memory of longtime Saxtons River resident, Donald Musgrove. Additional fundraising enabled them to buy two octaves of Schulmerich handbells and rehearsals began in Fall 1989. Since then, the bell choir has added another octave of bells. The choir has regularly appeared at numerous area festivals, worship services, and Christmas events.
Beth Smallheer has been a member of the ensemble since the very beginning.
“I’ve stayed with the group this long because I just love the sound—the fullness of eleven bells ringing all around me,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
As she described her experience, other members of the choir echoed her sentiments.
“There’s really nothing else like it,” said Eric Robinson. “I’m a conservatory-trained musician and this is a truly unique way to make music. Each ringer plays specific notes rather than a separate instrumental part. We have to really listen to each other carefully.”
Bell choirs developed as an offshoot of the tower bell-ringing tradition in England. Each bell ringer is responsible for several bells, ranging from high treble sounds (the smallest bells) to deep bass tones (the large bells).
“We have to wear gloves to handle the bells,” explained Bosworth, “because the oils from your hands tarnish the bells and change the sound.”
To experience the lovely sound of Christmas bells for yourself, listen to the Saxtons River Bell Choir on Dec. 11, 4 p.m., at the Springfield Congregational Church or at Christ Church in Saxtons River on Christmas Eve at 6:30 p.m.