CARILLON 101 – Lesson 3a

For a better understanding of our carillon and its place in the mission of the Chapel, I would like to share with you a series of short lessons on the history of the instrument and the art of the carillon. – Doug Gefvert, Chapel Carillonneur


When Dr. John Hart became the second Rector of Washington Memorial Chapel in 1937 and worked for the completion of the Chapel’s carillon and tower, there were four large cast bell carillons nearby for him to model his creation after – all four in Philadelphia. A cast bell carillon, by its definition from the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America, must have at least 23 tuned cast bronze bells played from a mechanical keyboard. Not only were the towers of contrasting design, but each carillon in Philadelphia was cast and tuned by a different foundry, each having its own distinct sound. All four of these Philadelphia carillons are still actively played.

Of the four Philadelphia carillons existing before 1953, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Rittenhouse Square is the oldest, having been cast by a Belgian bell foundry and installed in that tower in 1882. This 25-bell carillon is considered the first true carillon in North America. (The one at Notre Dame University is 26 years older, but not mechanically played, so technically it does not count as the first carillon in North America.) This high tower has four belfry openings covered by heavy stone louvers. The tower height and these louvers contribute to reducing the upper harmonics of the bells, thereby rendering them more harmonically in tune when the sound hits the ground.

Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, 25 bells, c.1882, S. van Aerschodt, Louvin, Belgium

The carillon at St. Vincent’s Seminary, The Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Germantown, dates from 1900. It started as a carillon of 26 bells by the Paccard Bell Foundry of Annecy, France and was enlarged in 1947 by Arthur Bigelow, the designer of the Chapel’s carillon, with three more bells added in 1952 for a total of Paccard 47. Four illuminated clocks adorn this tower. The belfry has no louvers to direct the sound towards the ground.

St. Vincent’s Seminary, The Shrine of the Miraculous Medal, Germantown, Pennsylvania, originally 26 bells c. 1900 Paccard Bell Foundry, Annecy, France, enlarged in 1947 and 1952 to 47 bells.

The carillon at First United Methodist Church in the Germantown section of Philadelphia was cast by the Taylor Bell Foundry of Loughborough, England in 1927, a year after Dr. Burk began his bell project. No doubt he know of this carillon, too. Originally a carillon of 48 bells, 15 of the treble bells were recast in 1999 by the Petit & Fritsen Bell Foundry of The Netherlands, and 2 bells were added for total of 50. This carillon is across the side street for Germantown High School and there a very few listening areas around the tower. They do, however, have a summer recital series similar to that of the Chapel’s carillon.

First United Methodist Church, Germantown, Phila., 48 bells, c. 1927, Taylor Bell Foundry, Loughborough, England, enlarged to 51 bells in 1999.

Unlike the design of the above three towers, Trinity Evangelical & Reformed Church’s tower is circular, allowing the sound to exit from 8 sides, a better design for a musical instrument. In a tower with four belfry openings, the sound is blocked by each of its four corners. With a circular tower such as this one, the sound is of a constant quality and volume all around the tower. This will be important to note when we look at the Chapel’s tower belfry design. The bells for this carillon were cast by the same foundry that cast the lower bells of the Chapel’s carillon, the Meneely Bell Foundry of Watervliet, New York. The original 1929 carillon of 25 bells was enlarged to 37 bells in 1953. The carillon was removed in 1967 when the church moved to Holland, Pa. (Trinity United Church of Christ) and enlarged again in 1976 to 49 bells.

Trinity Evangelical & Reformed Church, Phila, Pa., South Elevation, 25 bells, c. 1929, Meneely Bell Foundry, Watervliet, New York, enlarged to 37 Meneely bells in 1953, moved to Holland, Pennsylvania in 1969 (Trinity United Church of Christ, Holland, Pa.).
Trinity Evangelical & Reformed Church, Phila, Pa., South Elevation, 25 bells, c. 1929, Meneely Bell Foundry, Watervliet, New York, enlarged to 37 Meneely bells in 1953, moved to Holland, Pennsylvania in 1969 (Trinity United Church of Christ, Holland, Pa.).

The four nearby carillons of Philadelphia offered Dr. Hart a variety of tower styles, belfry configurations and bell foundries to choose from, all close enough for him to go to inspect their design and hear the bells for himself. Each carillon had its own programs and each carillonneur had his own style of playing and particular repertoire. Although there are no records showing that he actually did visit these carillons, it is hard to believe that he did not, considering their close proximity to Valley Forge and his involvement in the Chapel’s carillon. Also, Arthur Bigelow, the Chapel carillon’s tonal designer, was well aware of these four Philadelphia towers and their carillons.

Next Week’s Lesson #3b – The Carillon and Tower – A Grand Musical Instrument

Washington Memorial Chapel