Sometime during the 15th century, ingenious bell-ringers in Belgium or the Netherlands (or maybe northern France – no one’s quite sure) devised a way for a single person to ring multiple bells. The bells were installed at the top of a tower, and wires led down to a contraption that looked like an upright piano with foot pedals. It had wooden dowels instead of ivory keys. This was called a carillon. It was terribly hard to play, and installed in a tiny cabin high up in a tower beneath tons of bronze.
Far below, people gathered to hear the music. Guys named Quasimodo skulked nearby.
Although technology allows us to share computerized music over loudspeakers, the unalloyed sound of acoustic bells touches the soul, and so the carillon carries on. There are more than 600 in the world – 11 in Connecticut alone – and they are not much different from the instruments played more than 500 years ago.
Playing the carillon is much like playing an enormous piano with your fists and feet; the pedals ring the massive bells, which sound the bass. Although the carillon has evolved over centuries and improvements have made the instrument much easier to play, the player (called a carillonneur or carillonist) still must lean far to the right and left with their arms and legs to reach the notes, sometimes working up a sweat. It’s not a pursuit for your average lounge pianist.
“There’s no electrical assistance,” says Ellen Dickinson, Yale’s Bell Consultant, as she climbs the 200-plus steps to the university’s carillon. “It’s all mechanical.” Dickinson has impressive curriculum vitae. She’s performed concerts throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, founded a handbell ensemble, and served in many capacities for the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. Currently, she’s teacher and advisor to the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs, and college carillonneur for Trinity College. She’s also a passionate tour guide of the bell tower.
Visiting Harkness Tower is like time-travel; it was designed to resemble a 14th century church in England. The tortuous circular staircase looks like the one that Victor Hugo’s heartbroken protagonist might’ve climbed in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The tower also provides a stunning view of Yale’s Gothic architecture.
Sally Harwood, a volunteer assistant carillonneur at Michigan State University, recently visited Yale to play the carillon. Harwood spent a year in Belgium studying the carillon. She’s quick to agree that getting to and from a carillon is a challenge. Access can include ladders, catwalks, and precarious travel across open balconies. Sometimes, other things. She recalls one carillon she visited in Belgium: “I couldn’t find the light switch. I had to feel my way up the stairs in the dark. It was a little spooky, but I got there and I played.” Harwood shakes her head. “I found a switch going down, but I kind of wished I hadn’t. The staircase was full of debris, bird droppings, and dead bugs.”
Not the case at First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, where the bell tower is an open structure. The staircase of 99 steps winds its way up, providing a clear and windy view of the town. Marietta Douglas is the church’s carillonneur.
“I often think about the people down there who can’t see me, but they can hear the bells,” says Douglas, who has been playing the carillon for over 30 years. “Most people don’t even know there’s a person up here. They think it’s all recorded music. Usually when I finish playing and get down to the base of the carillon, no one is there. It’s kind of a solitary job.”
Neither the challenging climb nor the isolation deterred 16-year-old Jonah Garcia of Simsbury from playing the instrument. Garcia was only 11 years old when he started learning to play, and for the past two years he has played the carillon for Simsbury’s United Methodist Church. Alone in the tower, he plays with confidence and vitality. At 16, he may be the youngest carillonneur in the state.
He’s starting his senior year of high school in the fall, and looking at colleges where he can study both music and cellular biology. So, United Methodist must find a replacement. That’s a challenge. Since most people don’t even know what a carillon is, there are few who know how to play one.
The modernistic bell tower of Stamford’s carillon stands in contrast to the towers at Yale and Simsbury, which honor the carillon’s centuries-old history with their Gothic architecture. In West Hartford, the carillon is housed in typical New England style: in the stark white spire of 1st Church of Christ Congregational Church.
These four carillons, along with the one at Trinity College, are concert carillons, which means they have more than 47 bells. Scattered about the state are six more, smaller, but all worthy of a Sunday drive just to hear the call to worship. It’s not necessary to be spiritual or religious. The music transcends that.
Most churches and universities will welcome you to tour their bell tower. “We’re proud of our bells,” says Lily Garcia of Simsbury. While there, remember to acknowledge “…They that dwell up in the steeple… All alone…” (From “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe.)