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What Shall the Carillon Play?

Andrea McCrady, Dominion Carillonneur, Curatorial Services

December 2012

The practice keyboard. Click for additional information.
The practice keyboard

In 1922, the great Belgian carillon virtuoso Jef Denyn, founder of the Mechelen Carillon School, delivered a paper at the First Carillon Congress for Carillon Art to celebrate the opening of the institution that eventually would train four future Dominion Carillonneurs. Its title in Flemish was “Wat zal de Beiaard spelen?” and may be interpreted as “What shall the carillon play?” or “What should the carillon play?” The discussion about appropriate carillon repertoire has continued on both sides of the Atlantic over the decades. Each generation of carillonneurs determines the answer to this question based on their own instrument, time and place.

The Dominion Carillonneur plays more than 200 recitals year-round. From September through June the carillon is played every weekday at noon for 15 to 20 minutes. Each recital has a different repertoire, and it is posted monthly on our Web site. The carillon opens the festivities on Parliament Hill on Canada Day, and then during July and August is played on weekdays for a full hour after the Changing of the Guard Ceremony, from 11 a.m. until noon. Other regular performances include carillon recitals for the Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial and the Christmas Lighting Ceremony, as well as a recital on the first Monday in June for the annual memorial service for parliamentarians. In addition, special events arise, such as greeting visiting heads of state and royal visitors, or marking national events ranging from sombre state funerals to celebrations of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. Therefore, many hours are spent by the Dominion Carillonneur planning, researching, arranging, and practicing the broad selection of music that will be heard on the carillon throughout the year.

While the Peace Tower Carillon was installed by authority of Parliament to commemorate the peace of 1918 and to keep in remembrance the service and sacrifice of Canada in the Great War, its music is not confined to solemn dirges, but celebrates all aspects of life; it represents not only Canadian culture but also the aspiration for global peace and harmony. Carillon music draws from many sources. Compositions directly for the instrument are constantly being created. In addition, transcriptions and arrangements from repertoire of other instruments or genres are available. However, every carillonneur must develop the skill to adapt music to each situation. Carillons have been nicknamed “singing towers”, but the melodies emanating from them are inspired by the listeners on the ground below. There is a dialogue occurring during each performance. The repertoire must catch the listeners’ attention and engage them emotionally.

At first glance, designing repertoire for the month of December seems simple: lots of holiday music. Bells and Christmas are automatically associated with each other. Nonetheless, the music should strive to be fresh, offering new selections each year. For example, the programme on December 17 focused on Canadian carols, with a new adaptation of Ottawa composer Pierre Massie’s “Mourning Dove”. Furthermore, challenges constantly arise. For instance, every year the National Capital Commission presents the Christmas Lights Across Canada celebration on the first Thursday in December—December 6 in 2012. The task appears easy: December 6 is the Feast of St. Nicholas—hence lots of Santa songs, but it also marks the grim anniversary of the 1989 shootings at École Polytechnique and the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Therefore, the carillon recital at noon featured music for and by women, and a premiere adaptation of Quebec composer Rachel Laurin’s “Meditation”; the evening prelude to the Christmas Lighting Ceremony included carols, new and old, French and English. Here’s the resultant contrasting repertoire for that date:

Thursday, December 6, 2012, from 12 p.m. to 12:15 p.m.

National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

        Music by Women Composers:

Thursday, December 6, 2012, from 5:35 p.m. to 5:55 p.m.

Christmas Lighting Ceremony Carillon Prelude Celebration of St. Nicholas Day

What shall the carillon play? As Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King stated in his dedicatory speech for the Peace Tower on July 1, 1927, the carillon is the “Voice of the Nation”. Through the musician in the tower, the bells become a human expression of the marvelous diversity of life through time.

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