Fun Facts About Carillons
A carillon is a musical instrument that is usually housed in a free-standing bell tower, or the belfry of a church or other municipal building. The instrument consists of at least 23 cast bronze cup-shaped bells, which are played serially to play a melody, or sounded together to play a chord. A carillon is played by striking a keyboard called a “baton” with the fists and by pressing the keys of a pedal keyboard with the feet. The keys mechanically activate levers and wires that connect to metal clappers that strike the bells, allowing the performer, the carillonneur, to vary the intensity of the note according to the force applied to the key.
The carillon is the heaviest of all musical instruments; the total weight of bells alone can be 100 tons in the largest instruments.
The greatest concentration of carillons is still found in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Northern France, where they were symbols of civic pride and status. Some of the most spectacular are now protected by UNESCO as part of the world heritage site the Belfries of Belgium and France.
The world’s largest is housed in New York City’s Riverside Church.
Since each separate note is produced by an individual bell, a carillon’s musical range is determined by the number of bells it has. Different names are assigned to instruments based on the number of bells they comprise:
- Carillons with 23 through 27 bells are referred to as two-octave carillons. Players of these instruments often use music arranged specifically for their limited range of notes.
- The “keyboard” of a carillon is called a baton console.
- A concert carillon has a range of at least four octaves (47 bells). This is sometimes referred to as the “standard-sized” carillon.
The Riverside Carillon in New York City has (or did have—there may be other instruments with larger bourdons) the largest tuned bell in the world, which sounds the C two octaves below middle C on the piano.
- Travelling or mobile carillons are not placed in a tower, but can be transported. Some of them can even be played indoor—in a concert hall or church—like the mobile carillon of Frank Steijns.
- Modern imitation instruments (such as those made by Schulmerich) use semantra
(rectangular metal bars roughly the diameter of a pencil, but of varying lengths) struck by an electric solenoid. They may be played from a keyboard, organ console, or by means of music rolls. The resulting sound is electronically amplified and broadcast by loudspeakers. Although called “carillons” or “electronic carillons”, their sound does not conform to the definitions given by the World Carillon Federation or the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. The GCNA as of 2000 has disqualified all instruments in which more than 12 bells are played electrically. Twelve bells are allowed so that automatic chiming of tunes may take place. Chiming means that one bell at a time is usually played.
The carillonneur or carillonist is the title of the musician who plays the carillon. The carillonneur/carillonist usually sits in a cabin beneath the bells and presses down, with a loosely closed fist, on a series of baton-like keys arranged in the same pattern as a piano keyboard. The batons are almost never played with the fingers as one does a piano, though this is sometimes used as a special carillon playing technique. The keys activate levers and wires that connect directly to the bells’ clappers; thus, as with a piano, the carillonneur can vary the intensity of the note according to the force applied to the key. In addition to the manual keys, the heavier bells are also played with a pedal keyboard. These notes can either be played with the hands or the feet.
To a musician’s ear, a carillon can sound “out of tune.” Poorly tuned bells often give this impression and also can be out of tune with themselves. This is due to the unusual harmonic characteristics of foundry bells, which have strong overtones above and below the fundamental frequency. Foundry bells are tuned to have the following set of partials (overtones):
- Octave above prime
- Minor third
- Prime and strike tone resultant
- Hum tone (an octave below prime)
Additionally, there is a major 10th, 12th, and 15th which are not typically individually tuned, but are usually present anyway. They all combine to create a “resultant” pitch, which is in unison with prime on a well-tuned bell. Properly tuned bells emphasize the fundamental frequency of the bell.
Special thanks to absoluteastronomy.com