Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Bells.
The Bells is at heart a love story riddled with tragedy. Born to a deaf-mute mother in the mid-1700s in a remote village in the Swiss Alps, Moses Froben learns the language of sound - the vibrations of the church bells his mother rings, the quickening of her heartbeat. Thrust into the world when the priest - the boy’s father - realizes the child can hear, possibly carry word of his twisted lust, Moses is befriended by two outcast monks, Remus and Nicolai.
The two monks deliver the boy to the Abbey of St. Gaul, hoping unsuccessfully to hide him. Just when Moses is about to be ejected into the streets, Ulrich, the abbey’s choirmaster, hears the rare quality of the first struggling notes and intervenes on his behalf. Obsessed with the exquisite sound of the boy’s clear, ringing notes, Ulrich rigorously trains his young charge, but is instrumental in butchering his manhood to achieve the unchanging promise of a castrato. Ulrich smothers the boy with attention, touching his throat, his chest, as though shaping the very notes that pour forth. But Ulrich is a monster, burying Moses behind the abbey walls for himself.
Nonetheless, Moses escapes at night, free to wander the streets like a ghost, to watch people moving about their homes. Unexpectedly, he falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Amalia Duft, the slightly crippled daughter of an important family. A man unable to perform as a lover, Moses seduces Amalia with his voice and his touch, blinded to the limitations of his passion and the fact that their love is impossible. Amalia belongs to the world and her parents’ expectations, her marriage to a wealthy Viennese already contracted.
While Amalia is whisked off to Vienna for her marriage, Moses is confined to a moldy room in the abbey, imprisoned until it is too late. When he finally escapes the abbey, the evil Ulrich and his past, the castrato begins the arduous journey to Vienna and a career as Lo Swizzero, the most celebrated musico in 18th-century Europe. But nothing is easily won for this young man, neither love nor his music. Vienna turns a cold face to one without money or prospects.
Whether behind abbey walls or walking the streets of Vienna, Moses inhabits the world of outcasts more comfortably than the fine homes of jaded Viennese in search of any new diversion. Unlettered, fluent in no language but Latin, Moses is not prepared to survive a city where only the wealthy flourish. His magnificent voice untapped, it is only by coincidence that Moses is given access to the powerful, and only by deceit that he snatches the future that belongs to him.
Once more Remus and Nicolai are instrumental in the young man’s reunion with Amalia, his voice the vehicle for a passion that has simmered long without fulfillment. Save his two friends, this is a dark world. Knowing scant kindness, every aspect of this man’s life is fraught with danger and tragedy, each success purchased at a terrible cost: “What these awful men have taken, someday I will steal it back again.” Escaping the confines of the written word on the page, the castrato’s song illuminates the universality of suffering, Orpheus calling to his lost Eurydice.