The Music Of the Carillon Bells
Carillon Bells Are Ringing! Learn More About The Largest Acoustic Instruments In the World!
Chances are you have heard the bells tolling, either from a church belfry, or perhaps a bell tower at a university or courthouse.
Whether to call people to worship, mark the hour, or alert people to an important event; bells have been ringing in towns and cities all over the world for hundreds of years.
Thousands of bell towers dot the landscape, but not all bells we hear can match the complexity of the music performed on the carillon; what makes the carillon so different?
The carillon bells are a true musical instrument!
Unlike more common chimes, the carillon houses a minimum of 23 hand-crafted tuned bronze bells. Carillons allow for the full physical and expressive control of the player, also known as the carillonneur. An amazing variety of music, from traditional to contemporary, can be played on these massive instruments.
The Carillonneur Must Climb Many Steps!
My son's grandfather, David W. Johnson, plays this amazing instrument.
He has sounded the bells in Minnesota's capital city of St. Paul as carillonneur at House of Hope Presbyterian Church for close to two decades.
This carillon was one of the first to be built in North America in 1923, and is one of three located in the state of Minnesota. This carillon is a four-octave, fully chromatic instrument with 49 bells. Of these 49 bells, the smallest weigh 11 pounds and the largest weigh in at over 2 tons. The bells can be heard within a one to two mile radius of the church!
In order to reach his instrument, which towers about 90 feet in the air he must climb a spiraling staircase of 113 steps! Having climbed these steps on several occasions, I oftentimes wonder how carillonneurs have the energy to play when they finally reach the top.
Above the Treetops
The Machinery of the Carillon Bells
After climbing many steps, you are rewarded with a wonderful view from the tower.
The tower, or campanile, houses the machinery of the carillon.
There is a cabin for the player, and of course the bells themselves. Each bell is hand forged from bronze, and is perfectly tuned at the foundry by the craftsman who cast it. Each bell is truly a work of art. Sadly, due to air pollution, some older bells are eroding and losing their tune at some carillons. These bells must be restored when possible, or replaced.
The Clavier... - The Keyboard the Carillonneur Uses to Play the Bells
The carilloneur plays the bells using a clavier, or keyboard. The clavier resembles a piano, with both hand and foot pedals, arranged in tiers. On the carillon the hand keys are sometimes referred to as "batons", since they resemble small bats. Although the batons are struck with a closed fist, the carillonneur does not pound violently on the clavier. Careful control of the force used is required to obtain the proper sound from the bells.
Each baton and foot pedal is connected to the clapper of an individual bell by a wire and transmission bars. These wires can be adjusted by the carillonneur to account for variations that can occur due to changes in the ambient temperature. All bells are stationary; that is, only the clappers move when the instrument is being played. Some carillons are designed and built to enable several of the lowest bells to swing, thereby producing a peal, but they must stop swinging completely before the instrument can be played in its unique manner. The carillonneur can control the loudness and intensity of each note by varying the force with which they strike the batons.
Once a clapper strikes a bell, there is no stopping the sound. The bell will continue to ring until the sound fades out naturally. This is one of the reasons the music played on the carillon has such fantastic harmonics. It is also why the player must be very careful to ring each bell with precision. If a bell is struck too intensely, or if there are too many bells resonating at the same time, the beautiful sound of the bells soon becomes a garbled sonic soup!
The World War 1 Memorial Carillon
Located in Richmond, Virginia
This carillon, located in Byrd Park stands 240 feet high. The construction was completed by John Taylor Bell Founders of England in 1928 as a memorial for Virginia's World War I veterans.
Carillon concerts here are traditionally held in honor of Virginia's veterans on Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, Flag Day and Labor Day.
Additionally on December 23rd each year, "The Nativity" concert is held in the park, which draws thousands of listeners annually.
For more information on events and concerts at the War Memorial Carillon, please visit
Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon - Located in Springfield, Illinois
The Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon in Springfield, Illinois is home to the annual International Carillon Festival. The festival features carillonneurs from around the globe in a week long concert series. Set amidst the botanical gardens of Washington Park, it's a lovely place to plunk down on the grass and listen to some wonderful music.
The carillon itself is the fifth largest in the world. It is 12 stories tall and houses 67 bells, covering 5 1/2 chromatic octaves. The bells range in weight from 22 pounds to more than seven tons.
For more information on concerts and tours of this carillon, please visit The Rees Memorial Carillon Web Site
The Kibbey Carillon at Washington National Cathedral - Located in Washington, D.C.
Washington National Cathedral is the second largest cathedral in the United States and the sixth largest in the world. It is unique because it is the only structure in North America which contains a carillon and a full peal of bells. The carillon itself is the third largest in the world, with it's largest bell being greater than eight feet in diameter and weighing in at 12 tons!
Each Saturday at 12:30 p.m. (except for the day before Easter) carillonneur Edward M. Nassor performs a recital. If you are in the D.C. area for a visit I highly recommend enjoying a carillon concert in the Bishop's Garden.
For directions and more information about the Kibbey Carillon, please visit The Washington National Cathedral website
A Brief Video Overview of the Carillon
Another Carillonneur in Action!
Although much traditional music is played on the carillon, this video demonstrates the wide variety of music that can be played on the instrument. I especially like that the climbing of the spiral steps was included in this video.
And Another Carillonneur...Playing the Harry Potter Theme on the Carillon!
Additional Reading on the Carillon...
There are not a great deal of books that have been published specifically on the carillon. I will keep my eyes out, and hopefully find additional reading that I am proud to recommend. Stay tuned!
A Quick Poll
Have you attended a carillon recital before, or would you like to in the future?
More Great Carillon Videos on YouTube
The variety of music carillonneurs perform on their instrument never ceases to amaze me.
I would love to hear what you think! Feel free to post questions, I will do my best to answer them. It helps to have a carillonneur in the family for such things.