The Carillon

From Antiquity to the Present...


...The Song of Humankind

The carillon is an extraordinary musical instrument. Its history is as rich as it is long. For more than five centuries, the carillon has been a voice for the hopes, aspirations and joys of humankind.

In recent years, the carillonís popularity has increased as more and more individuals discover the carillon as a work of art, an object of lasting beauty.

About the Carillon

A carillon is a musical instrument composed of cast-bronze bells, ranging in size from two to six octaves. A four-octave (47-49 bells) or more carillon is the most desirable since most carillon music, historic and contemporary, is written for four or more octaves. The available repertory becomes noticeably limited for smaller instruments. Some of the most important factors affecting the number and weight of bells are the height and size of the tower, its location, and the instrumentís intended use. In a typical four-octave carillon, the bourdon, or largest bell, weighs about two and one-half tons and the smallest bell under 25 pounds.

Carillon bells are hung stationary, bolted to steel or wooden beams; only the clappers move. The clappers are connected through a series of direct mechanical linkages to the carillon keyboard.

The carillonís mechanical playing action, like that of the piano, allows the performer to control dynamics and phrasing solely through variation of touch.

The Bells

Carillon bells are distinct from ordinary bells. They must be carefully cast and tuned so that each individual bell is not only in harmony with itself but with the entire set of carillon bells. In addition to the actual pitch or strike tone, the carillon bell is cast and tuned to include a very prominent octave below the strike tone, a minor third above the strike tone, a fifth and an octave. The presence of the minor third gives the carillon bell its unique quality.

The Keyboard

The traditional carillon keyboard is of primary importance in the carillon. It is the vehicle through which the emotion and talent of the carillonneur are transmitted to the bells to create music.

The traditional mechanical keyboard has been integral to the carillon art for more than 500 years. Although the carillon keyboard shares some similarities with other keyboard instruments, carillon performance technique, playing with closed hands on the keyboard while using both feet on the pedalboard, is different.

The Carillonneur

Professional carillonneurs have studied at a North American carillon or at one of the European carillon schools, and then passed the Guild of Carillonneurs in North American qualifying examination.

The Program

The carillon can be a vital cultural resource. A regular performance schedule of recitals for holidays and commemorative occasions provides an enriching community activity. Carillon recitals have become traditional in many communities, allowing individuals and families to enjoy the unique nature of the carillon as an outdoor instrument.

Tower Location and Design

Carillons are found in cities, small towns, churches, zoos, botanical gardens, and even at private residences. School campuses and parks provide particularly pleasant settings to listen to carillon music.

Tower height is a major factor in determining carillon size; generally the taller the tower, the heavier the instrument. To enhance the carillonís clarity, it is preferable for the bell chamber to rise well above surrounding buildings.

The tower must be strong enough to support the weight of the carillon. A small carillon weighs five to ten tons, including the bells and frame. A medium-weight instrument is 15 to 30 tons; the largest carillons exceed 100 tons.

The Bell Chamber

A four-octave carillon in concert pitch requires a bell chamber approximately 25 feet high and 15 feet square. Large instruments may require two or three times as much space.

As a general rule a carillon sounds best from a bell chamber with openings totaling at least 50 to 60 percent of the inside wall area of the chamber. A tower roof is essential for best reflection and blend of sounds.

The Playing Room

To create the most direct and responsive mechanical linkages, the playing room which houses the carillon keyboard must be as close to the bells as possible. Generally, it should not be more than one normal floor level below the bell chamber floor. In larger carillons, the keyboard is often located in a playing cabin inside the bell chamber among the bells.

The Bell Foundry

Only a few bell foundries cast carillon bells. Until recently, all bell foundries were located in Europe. However, Rick Watson who designed and oversaw the renovation of the Princeton Carillon has started a foundry in Batavia, Ohio: Meeks & Watson.

Carillon bells are distinctive; that is, each foundryís bells sound different even when comparing the same pitch.

This difference is created by the shape, or profile, of the bell, the scaling of the bell (the weight of a given note), and the scaling of the clapper (the weight of the clapper relative to the weight of the bell).

Practice Facilities for Carillonneur and Students

To perform well, all musicians must practice. The carillonneur faces a unique challenge in that all performances are public performances. The practice keyboard, which replicates the action and sound of the carillon, provides the carillonneur and students the opportunity for private practice. Connected to tuned metal bars, the practice keyboard approximates the sound and touch of the instrument.

For additional information on carillons please visit the The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America page.

This information was written by R. Robin Austin, Carillonneur of Princeton University and originally published in booklet form by The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America.

The Princeton University Class of 1892 Carillon

Princeton Universityís 67 bell carillon is housed in Cleveland Tower of the Old Graduate College. This Gothic tower is 40 feet square and 173 feet high. The Tower is also the national memorial to President Grover Cleveland.

The Universityís carillon was renovated in 1993. At that time the instrument was placed in concert pitch, and a B-flat bass bell was added. In addition, one of the 1968 trebles was removed so the total number of bells remained the same (67). The playing cabin, bell frame, keyboard and practice keyboard were replaced.

Concerts are given by the University Carillonneur, R. Robin Austin, and students on most Sundays at 1:00 p.m. Photographs of Cleveland Tower are courtesy of the Princeton University Graduate College Home Page.


Bell and Carillon Links

My "15 Minutes" of Fame

North Carolinaís Outer Banks

Princeton University

New Hope, Pennsylvania

The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America

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Updated May 28, 2005