Ring those bells! This week, Tidbits chimes in with some details about carillons.
• The carillon, a musical instrument in the percussion family, is comprised of bells and usually housed in a bell tower or belfry. To be classified as a carillon, it must have a minimum of 23 bells. Anything less is just a chime. The standard-sized carillon has about 50 bells, and the world’s largest has 77 bells.
• The bells are cup-shaped and are hung in a frame. Shape and weight of the bell determine the pitch and quality of the tone.
• Music is generated by a keyboard connected to a complex system of clappers, hammers, and stainless steel wire. The carillonneur (the person who plays the carillon) plays with the hands on a manual keyboard made of rounded wooden batons. Because most of the keys are too heavy to press with a single finger, they are pushed down with a closed fist. When a key is depressed, it pulls on a wire which causes the clapper to swing toward the inner wall of the corresponding bell. The carillonneur plays the bottom 1.5 to 2.5 octaves, the bass clef, with his feet on a separate pedal keyboard. Many of the larger bells are played with the feet.
• There are no ropes and no swinging bells involved in the playing of a carillon. The carillon’s bells do not move, because they are fixed to a frame. Some carillons contain mechanisms that enable them to be played automatically without a carillonneur.
• There are about 700 carillons worldwide, mostly owned by churches, universities, and municipalities. While most are found in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany, there are about 200 in North America.
• The carillon’s original function in the 16th century was to ring bells to send messages and to indicate the time of day. Because the bells could be heard nearly a mile away, in a time when it was expensive to own clocks, the chiming of the tower was a great help to neighboring villages, clanging to announce the hour. The word “clock” has its origins in the Latin word “cloca,” which translates “bell.” The first modern tuned carillon came along in 1644.
• Carillons are the heaviest of all instruments, and can weigh tens of thousands of pounds. There are two carillons that are the world’s largest as measured by the number of bells. The tower at Bloomfield Hills, Michigan’s Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church contains a carillon of 77 bells that was installed in 1960. This Gothic church is patterned after a 13th-century Scottish abbey. The smallest bell is just 6” (15 cm) long and weighs 14 lbs. (6.3 kg), while the largest measures 6’10” (2.1 m) with a weight of 12,000 lbs. (5,443 kg). Daejeon, Korea’s Institute of Science and Technology has a 77-bell carillon as well, but also a 78th bell that is just for striking the hour, a bell that weighs about 24,000 lbs. (10,886 kg).
• The University of Chicago campus is home to the world’s second-largest carillon, housed in the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. At the top of the bell tower, 271 steps up, sits this memorial carillon of 72 bells with a combined weight of 100 tons.