By PERCIVAL PRICE
A CARILLON combines the features of a monument of the most time-resisting character with the utilitarian aspect of a musical instrument for the free enjoyment of the public. More than this, it can express sorrow when a community mourns, and joy when it rejoices. In other words, a carillon is a living memorial, a community voice that will last for centuries.
A carillon is a musical instrument using finely tuned bells, placed in a tower. Its whole historical development has been that of a community instrument. The smallest carillon might cost $20,000; the largest, four or five times that amount. If a tower that would serve to hold it is available, half the expense is saved.
A large carillon is to a chime what a piano is to a child’s toy imitation of the same instrument. Concert virtuosi play on it; in addition to arrangements of well-known music, special pieces are composed to display its effects, and audiences come to reserved listening grounds to attend quietly, as at any concert.
The bells of a carillon are of the same design as those in common use, but of superior quality because of accurate tuning. Most single bells are unaltered, untuned castings. This tuning, done by taking off small portions of the bell’s inner surface after it is cast (a founder’s secret so closely guarded as to be lost until recently), is what distinguishes the carillon and makes it an instrument of musical value. There must be a sufficient number of bells to permit chords and chromatic notes (two chromatic octaves or twentythree bells is considered a minimum), and they must be so hung that wires attached to their clappers can be brought to a central point. The bells are stationary, suspended from beams, and are sounded by the striking of their clappers.
The wires from the clappers, passing over a system of levers, lead to a “console” of gigantic keys and pedals. These keys are of a shape and spacing that permit them to be depressed by blows of the fist. The pedals are usually an alternative means of lowering the keys which sound the largest, deepest-toned bells, and which require a more powerful thrust. The arrangement of keys is like that of the piano, a row of “white” ones (they are not usually so painted) projecting about eight inches, and about three inches above them a row of “black,” in groups of two and three, as on the piano, projecting half as far.
The first carillon to come to the United States was placed in the Portuguese Fishermen’s Church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1922. Three sets of bells of carillon range came about fifty years earlier, but they lacked the necessary tuning; two have been dismantled and one is played as a chime. The Gloucester instrument, though not large, attracted thousands of listeners and was soon followed by a small (two-octave) carillon in Cohasset, on Boston’s South Shore. About this time, Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., decided to place some bells in the tower of the then Park Avenue Baptist Church, and was soon convinced of the merits of the carillon. The largest carillon in Belgium was in Ghent and had fifty-two bells. The Rockefeller set was made to contain fiftyythree, and it later surpassed all others when it was moved to its present site on Riverside Drive and augmented to seventy-two bells.
By 1927 fourteen carillons had been brought in, and this same year an American firm made its first carillon. By 1929 there were fifty-two carillons in the United States, of which forty-seven were imported.
A unique carillon, in this country, is at Alfred University, Alfred, New York. Three professors of that institution, — Watson, Saunders, and Whitney,— and their wives, formed a committee which eventually succeeded in procuring thirty-five bells from the Low Countries, sixteen the products of Pieter Hemony (1674), sixteen of Dumery (about 1737), and one by A. Van den Gheyn (1784). While not all cast to form one instrument, they blend well, and are as valuable in the bell world as a product of Stradivarius in that of the violin. It is the only ancient carillon outside Europe.
The carillon is the “horse” of instruments — it may be loved none the less for that — and playing it, like the king of sports, is cause for perspiration. Senator Picard of Brussels remarked: “Is it possible that such nuances can be obtained with this apparatus, analogous to a war machine operated by the fiendish gestures of a man who sweats as he strikes out in combat! ”
It is by just such gestures, under minute control, that nuances can be achieved. While the number of bells is large, it surprises visitors to the hell chamber that most of the bells are small. Yet they must he made to sound at considerable distance, and a faint note to the player would be scarcely audible to the listener outside. In its most powerful volume the carillon is not thunderous, and its music is distinguished by lightness and flexibility. Successions of high-pitched sounds ripple and cascade, deeper ones speak with more decisive melody; and if the range extends to really heavy bells, their notes are solemn and express a majestic, calmness.
The purchaser of a carillon should make certain that he is really getting a carillon. Although the word has been in the English language for over a hundred years,—it was first used to describe the instruments of Belgium and Holland and then those of modern make in similar design and musical effect, — several modern manufacturers have striven to increase the sales of quite different products by parading them under the same name. One manufacturer seeks to justify this title by combining two definitions in the dictionary, as one might juxtapose two Bible verses to bolster an action that neither supports by itself. Another does not make even this futile attempt. Their products cannot produce carillon music; they do not even approach it as well as the “harp” stop on an organ approaches the real instrument in the hands of a virtuoso.
One can always test the instrument by trying music composed for carillons on it. Carillon music has been published by the Curtis Institute of Music, the University of Michigan, and the Public Works Department of the Canadian Government. Also, manuscripts of ancient carillon music have come down to us.
A feature of the carillon which recommends it as a war memorial is its permanence. The only major act of upkeep is to give the bells a quarter turn once every two centuries. Another feature is the variety of music playable on it. Glancing at three programs chosen haphazardly from three carillon concerts in different parts of this country, I find that the “lightest” selections are: “When Morning Gilds the Sky,” “Anchors Aweigh,” and “Old Folks at Home.”
On the same programs the “ heaviest” are: “Serenade, Op. 3” by Rachmaninoff, “Spring Song” by Mendelssohn, and “Sonata for a Musical Clock” by Handel. Most of the repertoire for carillon consists of arrangements, usually made by the carillonneur; there is some composition for the instrument, to which a number of modern American composers of merit have contributed. A concerto for carillon and brasses has been performed, and in Canada openair ballet has been presented to carillon accompaniment.
It is to be hoped that carillons will not suddenly blossom forth in all the town-hall towers in America. Nothing could be worse, for usually in this country municipal buildings are located in the poorest sites for carillons. Where they are successful in such locations abroad, the town-planning and traffic conditions are very different from ours. A carillon site must be carefully selected, and if necessary a tower built there.