Nora Johnston, my Heroine

Nora Johnston is one of my heroines. She played the carillon at a time when men dominated the field. You can imagine the carillon scene at the time: big, strong men assertively striking the keys and pedals of the carillon. It was thought that the instrument required a level of physical exertion unbecoming for a lady. And yet, she earned her diploma at the Royal Carillon School in Mechlin, Belgium. She was adventurous and enterprising. She traveled around, playing carillons, giving lectures, and in general spreading the gospel of the carillon. When she realized she would unlikely become the carillonneur of any of the carillons in England, she had her own mobile carillon (metal bars substituting for bells) built so that she could perform throughout England and the United States. What a woman! And now we see her playing on her mobile carillon for the cows.

It’s hard not to laugh. I didn’t think too much about this eccentric show until I read that she was in an alcohol rehabilitation center at this time.* As a patient, she wouldn’t have been able to travel around to play for audiences, but clearly she was still invested in playing her instrument, even if for the local livestock.

Her memoir, Nora Johnston: A Memoir (New York: Print Means Inc., 2002), was published through the editorial efforts of her niece, Jill Johnston, and campanologist and carillonneur Margo Halsted. Through this memoir we can glimpse her experience as a woman carillonneur. Her portrayal of inaugurating a carillon at the Y.M.C.A. in Jerusalem displays her sense of adventure, fun, and love for the bells. She reveled in the sights as her ship made its way east from Tilbury, England to Jerusalem. “My greatest thrill on that voyage was when I caught my first glimpse of Port Said, and knew I was almost in the East. In the full daylight I suppose it is a garish kind of place, but we approached it shortly after dawn…The white buildings softened in the early morning light…” (78) And later, in Jerusalem, “And when I came down from the belfry, what a sight met my eyes! It was like a scene out of the Arabian nights. Bells had often been heard in Jerusalem before, mostly single temple bells, but tunes on bells had never been heard before—anyway by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Massed against the gates of the building were crowds of people, different to any crowds I had seen before” (80). Her Orientalist perspective makes me wince as I read this chapter. However, her evident enthusiasm for her trip and bells I can heartily endorse.

May all bell ringers today promote bells as broadly and enthusiastically!

* Luc Rombouts, Singing Bronze: A History of Carillon Music, Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2014: 246.

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