THE CARILLON                                               By carilloneur, carillon consultant Ulla Laage, Denmark


They are everywhere, the Bells. There are church bells, ship’s bells, doorbells, bicycle bells ... They are used for calling attention, alarm and warning, and as such they are part of man’s everyday life.

The Chinese were probably the first who were able to cast bronze bells and already around the year 2000 B.C. musical instruments consisting of bells existed in China. The development from then to the carillon of our time we don’t know. We do know that in the Flanders area in the beginning of years 1300 clock mechanisms were invented to perform the hour strikes and -melodies on bells. About 200 years later the bells were connected to a baton keyboard - at first only with the manual, later the pedals were added. The concert carillon was invented, and the shape of the instrument has hardly changed since. A sign of the wealth of a city was that it had a carillon - the wealthier, the more bells.

The design of the keyboard is based on the physical power that is necessary in order to bring the sometimes very big and heavy clappers to move in order to strike the inside of the bells and thereby make them sound. As the direct, mechanical action between the clavier and the bells is very sensitive, the clavier is placed as close to the bells as possible. The construction of the clavier can be compared with the white and black keys of a piano, but the carilloneur plays with loosely closed fists. The quality and intensity of the sound is dependent on the striking of the keys which gives the carilloneur full control of each tone and optimal expression in the artistic and musical performance.

In later years the concert carillon has gained a rising interest and popularity. In original music for this instrument prominent composers have emphasized and utilized the special character and possibilities of this majestic and monumental instrument. Composers to be mentioned are Ronald Barnes, John Courter, Roy Hamlin Johnson, Milford Myhre and Gary White, The U.S.A. - Clifford Ball and John Knox, England; Wim Franken and Leen‘t Hart, The Netherlands; Henk Badings,  Jef Denyn and Staf Nees, Belgium; Birgitte Alsted, Niels Viggo Bentzon, Bent Lorentzen, Erik Norby and Per Nørgård, Denmark; Hugo Melin, Sweden and Arne Nordheim, Norway. They have all created the most significant and important works for the concert carillon in our time.

An essential part of the job of a carilloneur - besides studying the works - is to transcribe works for other instruments and arrange hymns and songs carefully considering the playing technique, the long decay time of the bells and their very special partial tone relations. Not all music is suitable to be played on a carillon. If transcriptions of music for other instruments have to be changed so much that they loose their character and the intention of the composers, they should not be performed on the carillon.

The strike tone is the one we hear as the fundamental. The partial tone that sounds the strongest is a minor third above the strike tone. It is this note - unique for the musical instruments of the western world - that gives the bells their characteristic solemn and grave sound. This and the long decay time make it difficult for many people to listen to the carillon. However if you concentrate on listening to the notes just being struck and try to ignore the decay time from the earlier notes, you will quickly learn to listen to and accept this sound as an unusual “spice” of the bells.

Under ideal conditions a carillon can be heard at a long distance. The best listening place you will find away from traffic and wind and with a direct view to the bells. Close up the bells have a harsh and metallic sound, but at a distance they sound freely and beautiful.

The concert carillon must not be mistaken for the automatic, clock controlled chime, as this precludes any kind of dynamics. Therefore it is impossible to play recitals from a clock controlled or computer controlled chime, that since it´s invention has had one function only: to mark quarter- and hour strikes by a short, simply arranged melody.

Today 8 bell foundries worldwide have specialized in casting bells for concert carillons. There are 584 concert carillons and 4 carillon schools. Organizations taking care of bell- and carillon interests are the guilds of each carillon nation and World Carillon Federation.


Web sites to look up carillons are - -