Sweet Carillon

Sweet Carillon

What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! -how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!
—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Bells.”

We’re the most curious concert audience in town. Not only can we not see the performer, she’s also a block away in an entirely separate building.

Oh, but we can hear her fine. She’s playing the carillon (pronounced “carol on”), an arrangement of 54 bells that weigh 43 tons and are controlled by an organ-like keyboard. The carillon’s been housed in Yale’s Harkness Tower for the past 90 years.

Carillon music is complex, sensitive, tender, none of the clanging and banging—or, for that matter, “Step in time” Mary Poppins roof-hopping—which the uninitiated might expect. These are bells, swinging and chiming in harmony. It’s hard not to be enchanted by them, especially when their music fills the skies around you.

The bells are rung year-round by the Yale University Guild of Carilloneurs, made up of a couple of dozen students who help acquaint each other to the intricacies of this imposing instrument. The Yale Guild of Carilloneurs goes on tour every year; every two years, it tours Europe, including to the Netherlands, which some consider the center of the carillon universe.

During the school year, the Yale bells are played nearly every day for half an hour at 12:30 p.m. and for an hour at 5 p.m. On a clear day, you can hear them for almost a

Summer Carillon Concert Series
Fridays at 7 p.m. through August 10.
Listen from Yale’s Library Walk.

mile from Harkness Tower, a pleasant interruption from all the less coordinated noise of the city.

In the summer, the guild oversees a weekly series of hour-long carillon concerts at 7 p.m. on Friday nights, featuring guest artists from around the world. Forthcoming in the Summer Carillon Concert Series are Auke de Boer and Adolph Rots, a.k.a. the Groningen Carillon Duo from the Netherlands, playing everything from Mozart to Copland to Gilbert & Sullivan (July 27); Lisa Lonie from Philadelphia (Aug. 3) doing Gershwin, Chopin, Offenbach and the pop standard “Tea for Two”; and a closing concert by this year’s two undergraduate student “Summer Carilloneurs” Kerri Lu and Lynnli Wang (Aug. 10). Lu says she and Wang only just started discussing which tunes they’d like to play, but that “so far there is no overlap.” Her own tastes run to “cheesy slow songs, with a lot of melody,” such as the Henry Mancini staple “Moon River.”

Lu has been playing the carillon since she first came to Yale; she’ll start her Junior year this fall. “It’s a fun challenge. It’s very much like the organ—you need your legs to play. Each set of bells has their own character.”

For the summer shows, there has always been a special listening space where a crowd is invited to gather and appreciate the concerts as a specific carillon-craving community. For years it had been in one of the Yale college courtyards, at ground level, but for the first few concerts of this summer, the accustomed places were either under construction or occupied with high school

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summer programs. So the gathering place shifted skyward to the penthouse floor of the Loria Center, part of the Yale School of Art & Architecture complex near the corner of York and Chapel streets. That’s where the carillon crowd gathered to hear Ellen Dickinson ring in works by Bach, Purcell, de Gruytters (as arranged by Handel) and 20th century carillon composers such as Ronald Barnes, Terry Vaughan and John Knox. One section of Dickinson’s concert consisted of Irish, Russian and Scottish folk songs.

The rooftop audience of 50 or so listened attentively, and behaved as they would at an indoor classical concert, applauding at the end of the pieces but not between movements. Some quietly ate picnic meals at the large Loria Center tables. Others leaned on the exterior walls and stared directly at Harkness Tower. It may seem odd to clap for a performer who’s not there, but it also seems like the appropriate thing to do. What’s the alternative, anyway? Blowing a horn? Ringing bells back? Smoke signals or semaphore flags?

For the remainder of this summer’s series, the Summer Carillon Concert location has changed once more, to the “Library Walk” between Jonathan Edwards and Branford colleges. It’s ground-level again, but half a block closer to Harkness Tower. “We realized the Loria Center wasn’t really worth it,” Kerri Lu says. “The sound wasn’t carrying as well as we hoped. And the Library Walk wasn’t as cluttered with construction as we expected.”

With the summer series ending Aug. 10 and the fall semester not beginning until Aug. 29, does that mean a three-week dearth of ding-dongs? Far from it, Lu says. “That time is pretty much a free-for-all. We might go in and play almost any time of day. Our friends will say they were surprised to hear the bells.”

They’re hard to miss. Which invites the question: if the bells can be heard so clearly for a considerable distance from Harkness Tower, what is it like to hear them from inside the building? Lu laughs. “It’s loud. Even when you open all the doors and windows, you can feel it in your stomach.”

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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