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Let the merry bells ring

By Jenny King

Carillons as we know them — tuned sets of bells played manually on a keyboard — were first developed in The Netherlands in the mid-17th century. Status symbols for northern European cities, their popularity as public instruments was overshadowed a century later by decades of wars. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the art of casting and tuning bells for carillons was revived. And interest in them spread to North America, where universities, cities and churches began to build towers and fill them with tuned bronze bells.

The instrument at Christ Church Cranbrook was produced by the John Taylor bell founders of Loughborough, England, and installed in 1927. A gift from the Wallace-Booth families, it is the second oldest carillon in Michigan.

Renowned Book Tower (Fla.) carillonneur Anton Brees played a dedication recital on the new instrument at Christ Church Cranbrook in 1927. With the exception of one season, there have been guest carillonneurs performing summers every year, making the 2018 Summer Carillon Series the 90th. It is the longest running summer series in Michigan and surely is among the historic series in the country. A copy of the Detroit News story on Brees and the dedication will be on view during this summer.
The Christ Church Cranbrook carillon has added bells and replaced several of the original bells with newly minted ones of superior musical quality. The present instrument comprises 50 bells. The largest or bourdon, a low B-flat, weighs 6,500 pounds. Total weight of the bells is 35,000 pounds.

A carillon is played manually using hands and feet. The original keyboard, or clavier, and pedal board were replaced with a state-of-the-art clavier in the 1990s. It continues to “wow” guest carillonneurs with its smooth, precise action, giving players improved control for dynamics and tempo.

All the bells in the Christ Church Cranbrook carillon all are stationary; there are no swinging bells. But there is one unique aspect to them. The lowest octave also can be played from the Ellacombe stand in the playing room. Here the player faces the stand and gives a quick yank on a rope which in turn pulls its own clapper against the inside of the bell. The eight-bell Ellacombe is one of perhaps two in the U.S. that is in good condition and playable. But with a beautiful, versatile keyboard/pedal board only a few feet away, there is little reason to use the Ellacombe. Guests to the tower love it.

Among past carillonneurs at Christ Church Cranbrook, the name of Beverly Buchanan stands out. Beverly passed away in May of this year at the age of 87. Trained at the University of Michigan under Percival Price, Bev developed a carillon program at Christ Church Cranbrook for students and an extensive library of carillon music. She arranged scores of hymns for the carillon plus familiar Christmas, Scottish and folk tunes which continue to be played today. She truly paved the way for our tower and inspired carillonneurs around the country with her commitment and talent.

We are celebrating Beverly’s life by dedicating our 2018 Summer Carillon Series to her memory. Please join us Sunday afternoons at 4:00 PM from July 1 through August 5 for programs presented by top-flight carillonneurs. Tower tours are scheduled for July 1 and August 5.