Carillon Series Rings in the Weekend

Dean Vaglia, Staff Intern

From July 6 through August 10, Oakland University will open its tower doors to six of the world’s finest carillon players—carillonneurs—to play Elliott Tower in the 2018 Summer Carillon Concert Series. The series is in its fourth year, beginning with the completion of Elliott Tower in 2014. The concerts are free of charge and run from 6 p.m.–7 p.m. Guests are encouraged to bring food and drink.

The series kicked off with OU’s resident carillonneur Dennis Curry. Other performers in the series include 2014 Queen Fabiola Carillon Competition winner Joey Brink of the University of Chicago (July 20), Philippe Beullens of Leuven, Belgium (July 27), Muye Zhang of Yale University (August 3) and Julianne Vanden Wyngaard of Grand Valley State University (August 10).

The Elliott Carillon Tower contains 49 bronze bells ranging from 24 to 5,000 lbs. that were designed by The Verdin Company of Cincinnati and are the last bells to be cast and built by the Dutch Royal Bellfoundry Petit & Fritsen. The bells in the tower can either be played by a person—regularly done every Friday at noon—or set to be played by a computer, which it does every 15 minutes.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the carillon is an instrument consisting of at least 23 bronze bells tuned in chromatic order, referred to as half-steps, and played from a keyboard with wooden pegs and pedals.

Aside from starting off the Summer Carillon Series, Curry runs the carillon program at OU, which allows students to learn how to play the wooden pegs and pedals on both a training keyboard and up in Elliot Tower. Curry began playing the carillon when he was an associate organist at Kirk in the Hills church in Bloomfield Hills. In 1989, Curry was invited up into the carillon tower by the then-carillonneur to give the instrument a try.

So far former organist Martha Van Dyke is the only official student in the OU carillon program, which, according to her, consists of scheduling times to work with Curry on the practice carillon in O’Dowd Hall, as well on Elliot Tower.

“Dennis is very open and encouraging for people to come in and become apart of this group and help each other,” Van Dyke said.

As for how he came to OU, Curry was the consultant when Elliot Tower was being designed in 2013 and worked with the architects, designers and bellfounder.

He was then hired by OU after the dedication of Elliot Tower.

The idea for the carillon started sometime in 14th Century France as a drum-based machine to play the bells. Over the next 150 years the instrument gained popularity across Belgium and the Netherlands, and by 1480 a set of bells connected to a wooden keyboard in Flanders was being referred to as a carillon. The first municipal carillonneur position was established in 1557 at St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen, Belgium.

In 1922, the carillon was introduced in the United States through two 72 bell carillons at the Riverside Church in New York City and Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. Since then, according to Curry, there are now “just about 180 carillons in North America,” 14 of which are in Michigan—a number that is “only outed by Texas—they have 17 carillons.”      

Playing the carillon is described by Curry as “medieval aerobics,” as not only does the carillonneur have to climb the bell tower steps – Elliot Tower takes 77 steps to reach the keyboard – but the force needed to make the clappers strike the bells requires the carillonneur to slam the pegs and stomp the pedals, especially for the 5,000-pound “Elliot Bell.”

For more information on the Summer Carillon Series or the carillon courses at OU, contact Dennis Curry at [email protected] or [email protected].