Carillon | The Canadian Encyclopedia



A carillon is a set of at least 23 bells encompassing two or more octaves in half-tones, and manually played from a touch-sensitive keyboard. The instrument originated in the 16th century in Europe’s Low Countries, in ranges of from two to three octaves. In the early 21st century, a range of four octaves is common; five or more is exceptional. The carillon usually is an outdoor instrument, its bronze cup-shaped bells fixed in a tower belfry or, in some modern examples, on an open frame. The bells vary in size: those in a large carillon range from 16 cm in diameter and 5 kg in weight to over 2 m and 1,000 kg.

Function and Operation

The carillon is played from a keyboard of large round wooden keys and short pedals that are connected to the bell clappers by simple tracker action. The keys and pedals are depressed with full arm and leg stroke, sometimes requiring considerable physical exertion. Dynamics vary with touch, and there are no dampers. Automatic playing (in which there is virtually no control of expression and dynamics) formerly was rendered by a rotating cylinder, with pegs (set according to the music) moving the external hammers. Latterly electric magnets or motors have been used to move the hammers or clappers, the music being encoded on an electronic cassette or computer disk, often as part of a MIDI system. Automatic playing is limited mostly to European carillons. A true carillon is played manually without electric or electromagnetic assists; however, it can be set up to be played automatically by external hammers and manually by internal clappers.

The carillon came into use as an adjunct to the Dutch tower clock, announcing the time at frequent intervals with pleasing melodies, and providing hand-played open-air music on festive occasions. The carillon's rarity may be attributed to the difficulty in tuning the partial tones in the bells so that chords and complex passages may be sounded accurately. After the mid-18th century, there was a lapse of 150 years before well-tuned carillons were built again; in the 19th century about 15 instruments of inferior quality were installed in Europe and three in the US. At the beginning of the 20th century two English founders, Gillett & Johnston of Croydon and John Taylor & Co of Loughborough, developed sufficient skill in casting and tuning to produce satisfactory carillons. Prior to 1922 about eight appeared in Europe.

Carillons in Canada

The first carillon to be installed in Canada, a 23-bell set commissioned from Gillett & Johnston by Chester D. Massey, in memory of his wife, was placed in Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church in 1922. It was followed by instruments in the US and in many other parts of the world. In 2007, there were about 600 carillons in the world; 11 of these are in Canada, most of English origin:

  • Metropolitan United Church, Toronto (installed 1922 with 23 bells, increased to 35 in 1960 and to 54 in 1971; refurbished and rededicated in 2022 to mark 100th anniversary)
  • Norfolk War Memorial, Simcoe, Ontario (1925; 23 bells)
  • St George's Anglican Church, Guelph, Ontario (1926; 23 bells, increased to 35 bells in 2006)
  • Hart House, Soldiers' Tower, University of Toronto (1927; 23 bells, increased to 42 in 1952, renovated and enlarged to 51 bells in 1975)
  • Peace Tower, Parliament Buildings, Ottawa (1927; 53 bells)
  • Cathedral of Christ the King, Hamilton, Ontario (1933; 23 bells)
  • St-Jean-Baptiste Church, Ottawa (1940; 47 bells; not in operating condition)
  • Rainbow Tower, Niagara Falls (1947; 55 bells; renovated 1998-2001; not in operation)
  • Saint Joseph's Oratory, Montreal (1955-6; 56 bells)
  • The Netherlands Centennial Carillon, Victoria, BC (1967; 49 bells, increased to 62 bells in 1971)
  • Exhibition Place Carillon, Toronto (1974; refurbished 2001; 50 bells)

In addition to these, there are a few instruments that do not fit the definition of a carillon. In 1966, the Province of Alberta installed a “Centennial Carillon” in Edmonton. Despite its name, this device is not a true carillon, as it does not use bells. Another instrument, installed at Edmonton city hall in 1992, also falls outside the definition because it uses an electric rather than a mechanical keyboard.

Canadian Carillonneurs

The playing of the carillon rests in few hands. There are only about 400 professionally qualified carillonneurs in the world. The pioneer in the field in Canada and a world authority was Percival Price. Other carillonneurs active in Canada in the past were Émilien Allard, Herman Bergink, Robert Donnell, Sydney Giles, J. Leland Richardson, Sydney J. Shep, Jack Skillicorn, James (Bud) Slater, Arnold Somerville, June Somerville and Daniel Zlatin.

Among the handful of carillonneurs professionally active in Canada in 2007 were Claude Aubin (Montreal), Donald Hamilton (Guelph), Michael Hart, Charles Hogg, Rosemary Laing, Roy Lee, Gerald Martindale, Claire Poirier, and Gordon Slater (Ottawa). Andrea McCrady became Dominion Carillonneur in 2008.

Eight Canadians, Price among them, were founding members of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. Ontario was the guild's base for its first seven years (1938–45).

Recordings include those made on the Peace Tower carillon by Price and Slater, on the Netherlands Centennial Carillon in Victoria by Herman Bergink, on the carillon at Saint Joseph's Oratory by Émilien Allard, on the Soldiers' Tower by Leland Richardson, on the Rainbow Tower by Slater, and on the Metropolitan United Church instrument by Martindale.


  • The Netherlands Centennial Carillon, Victoria, BC. Herman Bergink, Leent Hart. 1974
  • Bells and Brass. Gordon Slater, Canadian Brass, Peace Tower carillon. 1978. Cassette, Good Day GD7371
  • Peace Tower Christmas. Gordon Slater. 1979. Tapestry Records GD 7373
  • Anniversary Carillon. Gordon, James and Pamela Slater, Heather Spry, Andrea McCrady, Metropolitan United Church carillon. 1982 (cassette), 2006 (CD)
  • Jan Jarvlepp, John Winiarz. Chronogrammes. Gordon Slater et al. 1986. Jarvlepp Productions JW 861
  • On Christmas Night. James Slater, Metropolitan United Church carillon. 1996. Cassette and CD
  • Touch the Hem. Gerald Martindale, Metropolitan United Church carillon. 1999
  • Gaudeté. Gerald Martindale, Metropolitan United Church carillon. 2003
  • Look At The World. Gerald Martindale, Metropolitan United Church carillon. 2006

Further Reading

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