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The Carillon

The Peace Tower Carillon

Between 1925 and 1927, the world-famous bell foundry of Gillett and Johnston in Croydon, England, cast and tuned the Peace Tower Carillon’s 53 bells. The largest, called the “bourdon,” weighs 10,090 kilograms and sounds the note E, while the smallest weighs only 4.5 kilograms and sounds the note A, four-and-a-half octaves higher. Each bell is tuned to produce a specific note on the musical scale. The bells are stationary and rung by the movement of their internal clappers, each one connected directly to the carillon console by a series of mechanical linkages. A carillon’s playing action, like that of a piano, allows carillonneurs to vary the sound the instrument makes by changing the way they strike the levers that move the clappers. The sound listeners will hear is that of the bells, not a recording of bells or a synthesized bell sound. There is nothing electronic or even electrical in a carillon; it is an acoustic, mechanical and manual instrument.

The Peace Tower Carillon was inaugurated on July 1, 1927, the 60th anniversary of Confederation. It was commissioned and installed by order of Parliament to commemorate the Armistice of 1918 and the sacrifice made by Canada in the First World War.

The inauguration ceremony was a major event and also marked the first live coast-to-coast radio broadcast in Canada. It is estimated that several million people heard the inaugural concert both in Canada and internationally.

Of the eleven carillons in Canada, the Peace Tower Carillon is the most frequently played and the best known. From September to June each year, the carillonneur performs from noon to 12:15 p.m. on weekdays, playing a different programme every day. In July and August, the recitals are a full hour long, taking place from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. every weekday.

Small bells of the carillon, circa 1927.
Carillon bells arrive at the CPR's Union Station by railway flatcar from Montreal, 1927.

What is a Carillon?

First built in Flanders around 1500, carillons are instruments comprising at least 23 bells played from a console consisting of levers and a pedal board that allow for infinite control of expression through variation of touch. A carillon bell is cast and then tuned very carefully by paring metal away, usually from the inside of the bell. Correctly tuned, the partial tones comprising the bell’s sound are in such harmonious relationship to each other that many bells may be sounded together, in a variety of chords, with a pleasing result.

Detail of carillon mechanism, circa 1927.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King throws a commemorative dime into the molten bell metal. Croydon, England. November, 1926.
Unloading bells on Parliament Hill, 1927.

The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America

The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America is a professional organization dedicated to the promotion of the carillon art in North America. Its members include performers, composers, bell founders, carillon builders, and carillon enthusiasts, as well as churches, universities and other institutions with carillons of all kinds. In September 1936, the Second Congress of Carillonneurs in North America was called at the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa, Canada. It was at this meeting that the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America was established as a central organization with a constitution. For more information, visit the Guild’s website at www.gcna.org.

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