A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Carillon

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CARILLON is the name given to a set of bells so hung and arranged as to be capable of being played upon, either by manual action or by machinery, as a musical instrument, i.e. so as to give out a regularly composed melody in correct and unvarying time and rhythm, in contradistinction to the wild and irregular music produced by change-ringing on a peal of bells hung to swing in the more usual manner. [ Bells.] A much larger number of bells are required to make a good carillon than are ever hung for an ordinary peal, which latter, owing to the difficulties of ringing and the space required for the bells to swing in, can scarcely exceed ten or at most twelve bells with advantage, whereas a carillon peal not infrequently includes as many as forty or more bells, the adequate performance of set tunes requiring not only a more extended range but the presence of the chromatic intervals of the scale, instead of the simple diatonic scale of the ordinary peal. The most radical distinction in the method of hanging and sounding a carillon as compared with a peal is that while in the latter the bells are slung to a wheel and axle, and are sounded by the stroke of the clapper inside on being swung round, in the carillon the bells are absolutely fixed on the frame, and are struck by a hammer on the outside. It is owing to this stationary position of the bell that so large a number of bells can be safely hung in a tower which would not accommodate half the number of swinging bells; and it is obvious that the precise moment of the stroke is much more under the control of the ringer when he has only to regulate the striking of the hammer than when he has to bring about this by causing the bell to swing: and it need hardly be mentioned that the system of striking on the outside of the bell is always employed when the latter is made use of for striking the hours upon in connection with a clock. In fact, the carillon system, when sounded mechanically (as in a majority of cases it is), may be regarded as an extension and multiplication of the stroke of the clock, with which it is generally connected, rather than as allied to bell-ringing properly so-called. Occasionally, however, the ringing-bells are also used as part of the carillon, an apparatus being fitted up in the ringing chamber whereby the carillon and clock hammers can be simultaneously pulled off the bells before commencing the ringing of the peal.

The system of playing tunes on small bells, hung in a graduated order and struck by hand, is believed to be of some antiquity, as indicated by occasional illustrations of some such system in mediæval manuscripts; and it seems probable enough that so obvious a means of music-making in a simple form may be even older than any such records imply. But we first meet with carillon music in its greater form in the 15th century, when the steeples of the churches and hôtels-de-ville of Holland, Belgium, and North Germany made the country resound with the bell-music for which Belgium especially was famed during that and the three succeeding centuries. The Van den Gheyn family, of whom the most notable member, Mathias van den Gheyn, was born in 1721, were pre-eminent among the Belgian makers of carillons; Mathias himself having been also an organ-player and carillon-player. The family were of Mechlin, but migrated to Louvain, where the traditions of their manufacture are kept up by the firm of Aerschodt. Among the most celebrated and largest carillon-peals of the continent may be mentioned those of Antwerp (40 bells), Bruges (48 bells), Malines (44 bells), Ghent (48 bells), de Tournai (42 bells), de Boulers (39 bells), Louvain[1] (35 bells) [App. p.579 amends to "(two carillons of 40 and 41 bells respectively)"], etc. It is worth remark that this bell-music has had its special development in flat countries, where its loud and travelling sounds are heard with far more effect and at far greater distance than in hilly districts, where the sound is closed in, interrupted, and echoed back. Indeed, the instinctive feeling which has led to great sets of bells being placed in the towers of flat countries is analogous to the instinct which gave rise to the towers themselves. A flat landscape suggests the building of towers, which become far-seen landmarks, and connect one city with another; and what the towers were to the eye the bells were to the ear, sending greeting or warning from one city to another over a vast expanse of level landscape.

Carillon-playing in these cities of the Low Countries, however, was not always a mere piece of mechanism; it took rank as a branch of executive art in music, and required the culture of a musician to develop its resources. The Belgian and Dutch carillons were furnished with a keyboard, rough and uncouth enough indeed, but still such as enabled the carilloneur to perform pieces in two, or (by the aid of pedals and of the prolonged resonance of the bells) even in three parts. Compositions were written for or extemporised on them; and some of the 'morceaux fugués' for carillons by Mathias van den Gheyn have been collected and published (by Messrs. Schott & Co.). The bells which were intended thus to be played by hand were furnished with an inside clapper as well as the outside hammers, the clapper being connected by a wire with the keyboard below, and the hammer operated upon by the mechanical barrel, so that the same set of bells could be played either by machinery or by hand. The keyboard, though arranged on the same principle as the ordinary pianoforte keyboard, was a large affair with wooden keys, so far distant from one another as to admit of being struck with the fist without disturbing the keys on either side; for as the leverage of the key had to raise the weight of the clapper, which in the larger bells was considerable, and as the force of the sound depended also in great measure on the force with which the key was struck, it is obvious that mere finger work was out of the question. The keyboard in fact was analogous rather to the pedal board of an organ, and in some cases the largest bells actually were connected with pedal keys, so as to enable the player to strike a heavier blow than he could with his hands. It may easily be imagined that, on this system, carillon-playing was a matter of no small physical exertion, and required the performer to possess mens sana in corpore sano to have a chance of getting successfully through his task, for which he clothed himself generally in a suit of flannels alone, the hands being protected by thick gloves to prevent injury in striking the keys.

It was perhaps owing to these practical difficulties that the art of carillon-playing never seems to have been very extensively practised, and has now very much fallen into disuse. But the difficulty arising from the player having to contend with the weight of the clapper in sounding the bells was even more felt in the application of chiming machinery to the hammers which struck on the exterior of the bells. The chimes were sounded by means of a large barrel connected with and regulated by clockwork, by which it was periodically released, and driven round under the ordinary motive power of a weight, strong pins fixed on the barrel coming in contact, each at the proper moment, with levers which raised the hammers, and released them to fall upon the bell at the moment when the pin on the barrel quitted the lever. The barrel was 'pricked' for various tunes (generally seven or eight), a change being effected by shifting it slightly, on the principle familiar to every one in the 'musical-box' toy, which is in fact a carillon on a minute scale, playing on vibrating tongues instead of on bells. The application ot this principle, on the large scale necessary for carillon-ringing, is fraught with difficulties, which the rude and unscientific system still prevalent on the continent (and clung to, apparently, with the same kind of conservatism which leads the North German organ-builders to ignore all the refinements of modern mechanism) quite failed to meet. As with the clavier-system, the difficulty really lies in the weight to be overcome in lifting the striking hammer. As the pins on the barrel had to take this whole weight, it was necesary that they should be very strong, and the barrel itself thus became so large, cumbrous, and expensive an affair as to add very much to the difficulties of fixing a large carillon-machine both in regard to cost and space. The time occupied in raising the hammer rendered any rapid repetition of a note impossible with a single hammer, especially with the larger bells; consequently a large proportion of the bells had to be furnished with two or more hammers to provide for this difficulty, the pins being arranged so as to sound two or three hammers successively on the same bell when the immediate repetition of a note was required. The method of sounding the note by the release of the lever from the pin did not conduce to precise accuracy in the time of sounding, but a much more serious interference with correct tempo arose from the fact that as some of the heavier hammers offered much greater resistance to the pins than others, while the barrel was driven by the same uniform weight, the progress of the tune was constantly retarded before the striking of the larger bells, producing the irregular or 'stuttering' effect which those who have listened to carillon chimes must have noticed.[2] The system is in fact mechanically so clumsy, and involves so much loss of time and power, that it is obvious that carillon-chimes, if worth doing at all, are worth doing better than this.

England has borrowed the idea of carillons only recently from the continent, but has the credit of inventing and perfecting the principle of mechanism which has surmounted all the above-named drawbacks of the Belgian carillon machinery. The part which English science and ingenuity has played in the matter is, in fact, exactly similar to that which it has taken in regard to organ-building. We borrowed from the Germans the idea of the grand instruments with full pedal organ which supplemented the 'box of whistles' of the old English builders, but our modern builders have applied to them mechanical refinements which have almost revolutionised organ-playing (not perhaps always in the right direction), and have placed at the disposal of the English organist facilities for variety of effect and brilliant execution such as his German brother in the art is scarcely cognisant of at all. In regard to the improvement in carillons it is only simple justice to say that, so far, its history is identified entirely with one firm, who perseveringly set themselves to accomplish the task of simplifying and perfecting the control of the bells on true mechanical principles. Messrs. Gillett and Bland, of Croydon, clock manufacturers, having turned their attention to the construction of carillons, aimed at getting rid of the main difficulty which is, as we have shown, at the bottom of all the defects of the old system, namely, the use of the same action both for lifting and letting go the hammers. The principle on which this improvement is effected is by the introduction of a revolving cam wheel aeneath each lever, which, continually turning, raises the lever the moment the hammer has struck the bell, so that the latter is at once brought into position again for striking, and the action of the pins on the barrel, instead of being a lifting and letting-off action, is merely a letting-off, the whole of the lifting being done by the cam wheels. As in many other mechanical inventions, the simplicity of action which characterises the new carillon machinery was not attained at once. In the first attempts, of which the chiming machine at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, is an example, the barrel was still of an unwieldy size, though an attempt was made to compensate for this in some measure by a novelty of construction, the barrel consisting not of a solid cylinder but a series of double bars, between which the pins were fixed in such a manner, by screws, as to be readily capable of being loosened and shifted one way or the other, so as to be adjusted to a new set of tunes if desired. The first machine made on this system was put up at Boston, playing 28 tunes on 44 bells, but the connection between the letting-off and lifting action being much too complicated and circuitous, the inventors patented a further improvement which very much simplified the action, and the contact between the pins and the levers was brought to the front instead of the top of the barrel, so as to render the most important portion of the mechanism more easily accessible. These improvements were first introduced in the machine erected in Croydon church. There was still a weak point in the action; but it would be impossible to explain all the intermediate stages of improvement without the aid of a number of diagrams, and we must be content here with giving a description of the new carillon action in its most perfected form, as described in the following extract from the 'Engineer' of August 13, 1875, and which is rendered more intelligible by the accompanying diagram, representing in a simple manner the principle of the action, without encumbering it with details:—


'The diagram is supposed to show the gear for working one hammer. It must be multiplied in proportion to the number of hammers, but the parts are all repetitions of each other.

'The musical barrel B is set with pins in the usual way. A is a cam wheel of very peculiar construction, operating on a lever C by what is to all intents and purposes a new mechanical motion, the peculiarity of which is that, however fast the cam wheel revolves, the tripping of the lever is avoided. In all cases the outer end must be lifted to its full height before the swinging piece D quits the cam. The little spring roller E directs the tail D of the lever into the cam space, and when there it is prevented from coming out again by a very simple and elegant little device, which the inventors do not at present desire to be made public, by which certainty of action is secured. At the other end of the lever C is a trip lever F. This lever is pulled toward C by a spring, and whenever C is thrown up by the cam wheel, F seizes it and holds it up; but the wire to the bell-hammer in the tower above is secured to the eye G, so that when D is lifted, the eye G being pulled down, the hammer is lifted. The pins in the musical barrel B come against a step in F, and as they pass by they push F outwards and release C, which immediately drops, and with it the hammer, so that the instant the pin passes the step F a note is sounded. But the moment D drops it engages with A, which last revolves at a very high speed, and D is incontinently flung up again, and the hammer raised, and raised it remains until the next pin on B passes the step on F, and again a note is struck. It will be seen therefore that, if we may use the phrase, B has nothing to do but let off traps set continually by A, and so long as A sets the traps fast enough, B will let them off in correct time. But A revolves so fast and acts so powerfully that it makes nothing of even a 3 cwt. hammer, much less the little ones; and thus a facility of execution is obtained hitherto unknown in carillon machinery. We venture to think that our readers will agree with us that such a carillon machine as we illustrate is about as ingenious a combination of mechanism as is to be met with in the range of the arts.'

It will be seen that here we have a system in which all the direct work that the musical barrel has to do is merely to let off the triggers, so to speak, of the hammers, while the force necessary to raise them is so distributed and so much better applied than when the pins on the barrel had to perform this office, that the inequality of weight between the large and small hammers is not felt as a perturbing influence on the speed of working. One result of this is that the barrel is greatly reduced in dimensions; the pins being required only for such light work can be made much smaller, and require little or no leverage power in themselves; and consequently, while the old carillon barrels were sometimes eight or ten feet in diameter, that at Shoreditch is only ten inches diameter. A barrel of this size, besides taking up so much less room, can easily be taken out and exchanged for a fresh one, with a new set of tunes, when desired.

But the crowning advantage of the system of the letting-off barrel is that by this means music can be played on the bells by a keyboard like that of a pianoforte attached to the frame, with no more exertion than on the pianoforte itself. Thus the physical effort entailed by carillon-playing on the old continental system, which rendered it an art only to be attacked by a muscular person in rude health, is entirely a thing of the past, and there is no reason, so far as the difficulty of the task is concerned, why carillon-playing should not be as common, in connection with large churches and public buildings, as organ-playing. The new carillon for Manchester Town Hall, in construction at the time of writing these remarks, is to be furnished with such a keyboard, in addition to the mechanical arrangement for sounding the chimes. It may also be observed that the carillon system can be applied to produce mechanical change-ringing, by having a barrel pricked with changes, and thus the 'ringing for church' can be done automatically, in places where ringers capable of change-ringing are not to be found. This, however, can only be regarded as an inferior and meagre substitute for the grand effect produced by change-ringing with swinging bells; and many, perhaps, would even prefer round-ringing with the swung bells to mechanical change-ringing with fixed bells. The result however can be heard and judged of at Greenfield church, and at St. Mark's, Oldham, where this contrivance has been applied.

The bells composing a carillon peal are fixed to a frame, generally of oak, slightly pyramidal in shape, so that while the lower cross-beams bear upon the wall, the upper portion of the frame stands free; this is not so absolutely essential as in the case of bells hung to swing, where the swaying action is very violent when the peal is being rung; but still it is better to keep the vibration off the wall as much as possible. The large bells are hung at the bottom of the frame (in some of the continental towers they were hung low down, below the barrel and quite apart from the rest), and the smaller ones above. In arranging the scale of the bells it is seldom considered necessary to have the complete chromatic scale throughout; and in almost all the older carillons the lower portion of the scale was restricted to a few notes giving the tonic or dominant to the keys intended to be most used, the intermediate intervals being omitted on account of the great expense of the larger bells, and the amount of space which they occupied. The arrangement, in fact, is much the same as that which obtained on the pedal boards of old English organs, before what were at first called 'German pedals' (i. e. the complete scale) were introduced. This principle has mostly been more or less followed in the modern English peals. The following is the scale for Manchester Town Hall, consisting of twenty-one bells:—

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \tempo \markup { \smaller "Hour Bell, 7 tons." } \relative g { \cadenzaOn g1 \bar "|" a b c cis d dis e f fis g gis a b c cis d dis e f fis } }

Here the carillon scale is laid out for the keys of D and A principally, and the selection of G for the hour bell appears out of keeping; but in fact the hour bell is never used in the carillon, and the quarter chimes are sounded on a selection from the carillon peal forming a scale in the key of C. The ten bells used for this purpose are also hung so as to swing and be rung by hand in the ordinary manner, the carillon action being lifted off for the purpose: so that Manchester in reality has two peals, the carillon peal as given above, rung mechanically, and the following scale—

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \relative c' { \cadenzaOn c1 d e f g a b c d e } }

formed of bells selected out of the carillon peal, rung by hand. There is also an automatic change-ringing barrel to operate upon these bells when desired. It may be mentioned that this is the first town-hall in England which has been fitted with a ringing peal. Carillons on the perfected principle above described have already, at the date of this article, been put up in the towers of Worcester Cathedral, of Bradford, Rochdale, and Reading Town Halls, in the churches of Leek, Oldham, Shoreditch, Holsworthy, Witney, St. Stephen's Hampstead, etc., all by the same Croydon firm before referred to.

How far manual carillon-playing may be carried, as a branch of music, with effect, it is difficult to say. The class of composition performed on such a medium can never be very elaborate or varied, and must probably have a specialty of character to suit the instrument (if one may call it so) and the circumstances and situation in which it is heard. It is possible that these considerations might suggest some novelty of style and effect, if the keyboard carillon comes more into use. The clangour and prolongation of the sound, however, which is one of the characteristic effects of a peal of bells, is inimical to anything like true musical definition; and the attempt to damp the bells after being struck would rob them of much of their peculiar wildness and grandeur. It would seem, therefore, that the carillon must always be an instrument for effect rather than for intricate musical design; though it would be very interesting to hear the experiment tried of executing more elaborated music on a carillon with a complete chromatic scale. It must always be remembered however, that carillons, like bells proper, are to be judged from a fair distance, and not at close quarters; their tones, calculated to be heard over a large tract of country, are necessarily somewhat harsh and jangling when too near.

What may be termed drawing-room carillons are also made, in which the sounds are produced by metal bowls like the bell of an ordinary time-piece, and played on by a pianoforte keyboard. These may perhaps produce some new musical effects in combination with such an instrument as the harmonium; but probably they will always be regarded as pretty toys rather than serious means of musical effect or expression. [Vol. iv adds "See also Chimes in Appendix."]

[ H. H. S. ]

  1. The Louvain peal has been reproduced, or nearly so, in the carillon made by Gillet and Bland for Cattistock church in Dorsetshire. [App. p.579 amends to say that "Aerschodt made the 33 bells for Cattistock Church, the machinery only being supplied by Gillet and Bland."]
  2. To many listeners, not doubt, this irregularity, so far from detracting from the effect of this airy music, would seem rather pleasing from its old-fashioned sound and associations. This associations, however, though it may be reason for not interfering with old chilmes, is no reason for repeating the same defects in new ones.