I remember the first time I heard a carillon. Until that time I was most familiar with the single bell at our little country church that rang when the long rope in the vestibule was pulled. The church pastor had the honor minutes before the morning service began, but sometimes the youth were allowed to try – coached to smoothly pull the rope so that the bell had one clear ring with each stroke.
While some church belfries contain carillons, the carillon is different from church chimes – and many times are housed in their own belfry, unrelated to a church. It’s an instrument made up of at least 23 bells; the largest in the US is in Michigan with 77 bells. In New York City, the Rockefeller carillon has the largest bell (a C note) at over 40,000 pounds and over 10 feet in diameter.
The carillon that I first heard is at Alfred University in New York, first assembled in 1937. The bells of a carillon are precisely tuned so that many can ring together in harmony. Unlike the single church bell I remember as a child, the bells are stationary and only the clappers move. Thousands of pounds of bronze swinging back and forth would not make for a very safe instrument. A carillonneur is seated at a keyboard that has long batons as keys. The carillonneur strikes the batons with the fist for the high notes and the larger clappers are moved with foot pedals.
The first carillon was built in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking region of what is now Belgium). In medieval times the bells would ring from lowest to highest to warn the citizens of fires, approaching storms, or invasions. Today carillons are used in times of celebration such as weddings or town parades, for musical appreciation, and simply, to announce a new hour in the day. There is a carillon at Longwood Gardens if you’re headed there for the holiday season and want to check it out.
Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer have had multiple tours in Europe in the past several years. Their album Maritime was #1 on the EuroAmericana charts after its release in 2015. In 2013 they visited Amsterdam and were inspired to write their song Carillon. Some amazing stories following the writing and release of this song exist, but I will let Dave and Mandy tell those stories at their house concert on Saturday, December 5, 2015. Potluck at 6 pm. Show at 7 pm. There are a few seats remaining and you can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org to rsvp.