The nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’, a favourite among children for over 200 years, is to receive a performance on a much larger scale tonight when a piece comissioned to mark Big Ben’s 150th anniversary is premiered.
The composition combines the sounds of 200 bells, assembled from each of the 17 churches featured in the rhyme, with a choir of singers also taken from areas listed in the song. Composer Benjamin Till recorded each bell individually after discovering that one was still present in all of the named churches – a process that was anything but straightforward.
‘Recording the bells was something else. Some, we discovered, had not been rung since VE Day, and we clambered into many dark, dusty, dangerous belfries, and felt countless rungs of ladders and floorboards giving way under our feet,’ Till told Radio 4’s Today programme.
Once the perilous act of making the recording was complete, there was still the matter of putting the piece together. ‘The process of pulling all the bells together in the studio was like pulling teeth,’ the composer explained. ‘Day after day we’d arrive and start the painstaking process of inputting individual strikes – 4000 in total. We’d manage about 1,000 each day before we started climbing up the walls.’
Listeners can judge whether the toll was worth it when the composition is first performed at St Mary le Bow church on 11 July. Listeners in London also have the chance to hear it again on BBC tomorrow morning on BBC London radio.