What Should the Carillon Play? Part II

In a recent post, I discussed repertoire for the carillon. So maybe the question us carillon performers should be asking ourselves when determining what to play is—what sounds good on the bells?

I’m going to leave aside the thoughts of past carillonneurs and focus on two issues that arise today.

Carillonneurs often bring up the long resonance time of the bells as an important consideration. This is especially true in North America, since almost all of our carillons were cast and installed since the 1920s. By this point in time, bell foundries were able to cast bells with pure bronze and thus manufactured a longer resonance time for the bells compared to older ones. Newer carillons tend to have larger bells as well, and this contributes to a longer resonance time. With the resonance time on bells and the lack of damping, the notes of the bells bleed into one another. At times, there can be so many different notes sounding that it may overwhelm the musical line as it’s unfolding in time.

Watch this video of the expert Boudewijn Zwart performing an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Toccata in D minor.

I show this video to make the point that even with one of the best carillonneurs in the biz, the bell resonance can sometimes interfere with the total musical effect. In this case, it mostly has to do with the lingering harmonies clashing with new harmonies being played. Listen at 2:10 how the fast-changing harmonies produce a wash of sound behind the melody as it’s played. This is not the fault of the musician by any means; it’s just the nature of the instrument.

Another issue that carillonneurs often bring up as a consideration in choosing repertoire and making carillon arrangements is the unique tuning of bells. Namely, the prominent minor third interval in the overtone structure of the bell. In the overtone scheme for a C bell below, the minor third is between the C and the E-flat.

C bell overtone seriesBecause of this prominent interval in the bell sound, some carillonneurs argue for favoring music in minor or octatonic modes, both of which prominently feature the minor third interval. They claim that the minor third in the bell reinforces the minor thirds as they are played in the music, rather than clashing with major thirds that dominate in major modes. And I think they have a point. Lest I exaggerate their position, I’ve never heard anyone argue that music in major modes should not be played on the carillon at all.

What I haven’t heard discussed much, and which I think is an important consideration, is the extent to which listeners can grow accustomed to the sound of the bells. If casual listeners can sharpen their listening skills for the carillon, their capacity for discerning more complex melodies and harmonies could evolve over time. I think the evidence for this phenomenon is in us carillonneurs. We hear carillon music so much that we can more easily discern subtleties in the music more so than when we first started playing. Wouldn’t we expect the same of listeners who listen to the bells over the course of time?

Then the question would be how this would affect our choice of repertoire. For those carillonneurs who play for listeners that have and will hear the carillon many times (such as in churches or on university campuses), they may be able to play music with more complex, faster harmonies and more subtle melodies without confusing the listeners below. Carillonneurs who tend to play for visitors may favor more simple arrangements.

Once again, I’m a woman of moderation. I think the answer lies in playing both the simple and complex. The sound of just a few bells is beauty itself, anyway, so a simple, well-done arrangement is not boring. (Well, I guess one could argue that a listener becomes so familiar with the sound of bells that a single bell becomes uninteresting.) And the more complex compositions and arrangements can provide ear candy for those ready for it.

2 thoughts on “What Should the Carillon Play? Part II

  1. I’ve been wondering about this. Aren’t you also somewhat constrained by the speed at which a piece was intended to be played? Seems like something allegro on a carillon would become, like, a remix a la Steve and Edie doing “Black Hole Sun.”

    1. Yes, tempo of the piece is also a consideration. We can certainly play very fast pieces, but then the texture usually needs to be thinned out, especially in the bass.

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