CARILLON 101 – Lesson 3c


The carillon is played from a keyboard inside the playing cabin, situated in within the belfry. The carillonneur must climb 112 steps up a spiral stairway to reach the playing cabin. Six of the largest bells are below the playing cabin and 52 are above. Being right in the middle of the bells, without any obstructions, the carillonneur can easily hear each of the bells clearly. Five adjustable windows in the playing cabin allow the carillonneur to regulate the sound of the bells entering the cabin.

The Carillon’s Playing Cabin

Inside the playing cabin is a keyboard with 58 wooden keys (one for each of the carillon’s 58 bells). There are also 24 pedals for the carillonneur to play the lower 24 bells. The keys for the carillonneur’s hands and pedals for his feet are arranged in much the same way as the keys on a piano with the accidentals (black keys) on the top row and the naturals (white keys) on the lower row.

This type of manual keyboard has been in use virtually unchanged since 1510, when the first such keyboard was connected to a set of tuned bells in Oudenaarde, Belgium, making it the first ever carillon.
State bell abbreviations appear above each key.
Frank Law, the Chapel’s first Carillonneur. Both hands (clenched fist or open hand) and both feet are used to play the carillon.

As the carillonneur depresses a key (or baton) with his fist or a pedal with his foot, the motion and degree of force is transmitted by a stainless steel wire to the bell, either above or below the playing cabin. Mechanical cranks transfer the downward motion of the key from vertical to horizontal and pull the bell’s clapper to the inside of the bell causing it to sound. After sounding, a spring pulls the clapper back to its rest position ready to strike again. Just like a piano, the carillon is touch sensitive.

As the key is depressed, a wire pulls the clapper to the inside of the bell. Infinite degrees of dynamics are possible. This mechanical way of playing the carillon has not changed since 1510. This keyed touch sensitive instrument predates the piano by almost 200 years.
Seen here are mechanical roller bars to transfer the pull of the key sideways to the proper bell, cranks, transmission wires, clappers and return springs.

The dynamics of the bell (loud and soft) are a result of how much force the carillonneur applies to the key. Some carillons are fitted with an electric strike on each bell and played from a finger keyboard, connected to an organ keyboard, or played by an automatic player. Dynamic variation is not yet possible with these systems.

Watch the carillon being played: Carillon at Valley Forge, “Legend” by John Courter

Once tuned at the foundry, the bells will not go out of tune. However, regular professional maintenance on the mechanical workings of every carillon is essential.

Annual professional maintenance (lubrication, repairs and adjustments) is essential.

The annual maintenance of this carillon is funded by the Pennsylvania State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (donors of the tower and carillon).

Next Week’s Lesson #4 – The Carillon – The Voice of the Chapel

Washington Memorial Chapel