Just before his death in 1482, the Flemish poet and chronicler Anthonis de Roovere recorded a technological marvel he witnessed in, of all places, a belfry in the sleepy fishing town of Dunkirk:
A young bell-ringer by the name of Jan van Bevere lived in Dunkirk. He played a variety of existing songs, hymns, sequences, a Kyrie Eleison and all the ecclesiastical chants on his bells. Never before had something like this been heard: it was a great innovation in honor of God.
It must have been quite the shock. To the medieval mind, church bells were clocks, summonses, and warning systems. They clamored in celebration and knelled in condolence. Bells made noise, not music. Although de Roovere’s anecdote comprises the entirety of what we know about the young musician, it is clear that van Bevere’s innovation was a watershed moment. This description is perhaps the earliest surviving account describing what we now know today as the carillon, an instrument that would become a beloved feature on the musical landscape (or, rather, cityscape) across the Low Countries and the entire Western world.
Jan the bell-ringer’s idea for the carillon is not terribly difficult to conceive: imagine attaching bronze bells (at least twenty-three of them, tuned chromatically) to the clavier-and-pedal layout of an organ, and you won’t be far off. Of course, some aspects need to be refined: instead of the successive, finger-sized keys of an organ or piano manual, a carillon has larger wooden batons, each spaced two inches from the next. The musician depresses the baton with a loose fist, causing a cast-iron clapper to strike a bell, firing a metallic note out from the belfry to listeners below. A carillon player is known as a carillonneur, ostensibly from the French, although there is little consensus on the proper pronunciation of the word.
The bells produce minor third overtones, granting a silvery solemnity to any piece played thereon. Hearing a carillon is an immersive experience: the notes bounce off rooftops and through trees, creating a living sound in tune with its environment, a far cry from the sterile perfection of a recording studio or even the precise acoustics of a concert hall. The carillon’s ability to penetrate the urban landscape contributed to its role in Renaissance Flanders as an agent of benediction, the bells radiating prayers like a smoking censer. It’s no wonder de Roovere thought the Kyrie chants sounded so captivating on the instrument; even today, Christian hymns are surpassed perhaps only by classical preludes as the most widely played genre in campanile repertoire.
In the centuries following the instrument’s invention, the carillon was installed in hundreds of towers everywhere from Picardy to Groningen. Yet it wasn’t until 1883 that the United States received its first true carillon (installed in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia), after which parishes and universities across the country began to submit their own orders to the bell foundries of Europe. A small but well-connected community of carillonneurs established itself on both sides of the Atlantic, and the first carillon school was founded in Belgium, just in time for the trials of the twentieth century to begin.
In 1940, the town of Dunkirk was thrust into the historical spotlight as the site of the Allied evacuation from France, events for which it is still most known today. After the fishing boats of Dover made their last rescue mission to the Continent and the Low Countries submitted to Nazi occupation, the carillon became a musical symbol of resistance. The carillonneur of the Amsterdam Royal Palace consistently played a hymn on Psalm 42 (“As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God”)—a plea to God for an escape from enemy tyranny. In an attic three canals away, Anne Frank confided to her diary her fondness for the carillon bells of the nearby Westerkerk. When the Germans melted down the instrument for war matériel in 1943, she lamented the loss, writing that without the bells or windows in her family’s attic, she had no way of telling what time it was, or even if it was day or night.
Following the reconstruction of lost instruments and a resurgence in interest after the war, carillon culture in the present day is a much more jovial and inclusive affair. I myself am a newcomer to the instrument, having joined the student-run Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs last October. Far from just Gregorian chants, the bells of Harkness Tower in New Haven sound with a diverse repertoire: traditional carillon music of course, but also original compositions, video game music, and even those perennial crowd-pleasers—Disney songs. With the instruments weighing up to one hundred tons, a folksy platitude among carillonneurs is that the carillon is the original “heavy metal.” I can hardly imagine Led Zeppelin on the bells, but it’s in keeping with the democratic character of modern carillon playing that just about any other genre is possible.
Just before much of the nation was closed this spring, I was on tour with the Yale Guild, playing at various carillons in eastern Michigan. On March 8, we visited Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield Township, a lovely, neo-Gothic structure modeled after Scotland’s Melrose Abbey. Housed in the building’s limestone tower is a carillon of seventy-seven bells—the most of any single instrument in the world. Several of my friends in the Guild had a holiday with this extended range, concluding their pieces with impossibly long cascades of arpeggios rolling up the clavier. I would have indulged too, but the suspension in the final measure of my piece, Bach’s Prelude in E-flat major, BWV 998, would hardly have allowed for it. It was a memorable day. Unbeknown to us at the time, the entire country would be facing a shutdown within the week.
As in just about every other facet of American life, the current pandemic has brought about an inescapable disruption to the carillon community. We cut our Michigan tour short, the annual conference of North American carillonneurs was canceled, and several towers across the country have fallen silent. As history tells us, however, the carillon is nothing if not a resilient instrument. Throughout the crisis, the social distancing already inherent in playing the carillon has allowed many towers to maintain a regular performance schedule, making carillon concerts some of the only live musical performances continuing throughout the current year. Far from the packed seats of the Metropolitan Opera House or the Vienna Musikverein, social distancing is also no problem for audiences when the instrument in question can be heard outdoors for three-quarters of a mile.
The music is a welcome symbol of normalcy in communities across the country, and as carillonneurs have pressed on during these uncertain times, many have found creative ways to perform. A few weeks after the Yale Guild visited Kirk in the Hills, the church’s resident carillonneur began hosting “drive-in” concerts, during which listeners could appreciate the bells from the isolation of their own vehicles. And although being out of earshot is not a problem one usually associates with listening to the carillon, the internet can of course project sounds even far further than bells of any size. If you are unlucky (or, if you enjoy sleeping in, lucky) enough not to live within range of a carillon, towers across the country have taken up streaming their music online. Even Kirk in the Hills’ drive-in concerts have an online audience; at the end of each piece, you can hear the resounding honks of applause on the livestream.
So I encourage readers, during this time of musical scarcity: find a tower near you, visit it during a concert if you can, and let the singing bronze mesmerize you just as it did its first listeners among the Gothic spires of Flanders. Pandemic or no, the bells ring on.