Carillon Bells

The Carillon Bells of Holy Trinity

If you have been one of the many visitors to Rittenhouse Square on Sundays, you may have found tranquility and peace as you listened to familiar hymns, folksongs and other tunes played on the carillon bells hanging in the old brown stone tower of the Church of the Holy Trinity, 19th and Walnut Streets.  Our carillon was the first such instrument installed on the North American continent!

Fast Facts!

  • There are 25 tuned bells that make up the carillon. Largest is 2,895 pounds; the smallest 58 pounds
  • The Holy Trinity’s carillon is the first carillon instrument installed in North America
  • The bells were cast in 1882 and dedicated in 1883
  • The cost of the carillon was $10,000 in 1880 or approximately $225,000 today
  • There are 148 steps to the playing cabin
  • The bells do not swing; only the clappers move
  • Once tuned at the foundry, the bells do not go out of tune.
  • The carillon can be played manually or automatically
  • There are 190 manual carillons in North America, of which 11 are located here in the Delaware Valley

What is a carillon?

By definition, a carillon is a set of 23 or more tuned bells played manually from a keyboard that allows expressiveness through variation in touch, and on which the player, or carillonneur, can play a broad range of music—from arrangements of popular and classical music to original compositions created just for the carillon. The carillon for the Church of the Holy Trinity (CHT) arrived on the S.S. Zealand from Antwerp on the eighteenth of July 1883.  It was ordered in 1880 at a cost of $10,000.  The framework to support the bells was made in Belgium of heavy oak wood.  A skilled machinist was sent by Van Aerschodt (Louvain), the bell founder, to supervise the installation of the transmission system to connect the clappers to the keyboard. 

The larger bells have a medallion likeness of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Temple, the donors, cast upon them, with the following inscription: “Presented to the Church of the Holy Trinity by Joseph E. Temple in memory of his wife, Martha Anna Kirtley, born in England May 11th 1821; died in Philadelphia Dec. 7 1864.  Caste by Severin Van Aerschodt, Louvain, Belgium, 1882”.  Dr. John Stainer, His Majesty’s Inspector for Music and organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral at that time, was appointed by the Church to test the bells in order to place the character of the bells beyond question.  Dr. Stainer approved the bells at Louvain June 25th 1883, noting “their beautiful tone and in good tune.” The bells were first rung at the General Episcopal Convention which assembled at the Church on October 3, 1883.

What is the difference between a chime and carillon?

A chime is a set of 22 or fewer bells, arranged in a chromatic series and so tuned that when sounded together produce harmony.  The player is called a chimer.  A carillon, played by a carillonneur, contains 23 or more tuned bells.  The largest carillon by weight in the world is at the Riverside Church in New York City (the largest bell is 40,926 lbs, 74 bells for a total weight of 100 tons).  The largest carillon in terms of bell count is at Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan with its 77 bell carillon.  To put it into perspective, our carillon contains 25 bells; the largest weighing approximately 2,895 pounds; the smallest is 58 pounds for a combined weight of 13,982 pounds. There are 190 manually played carillons in North America, of which 11 reside in the Delaware Valley – one of the highest concentrations of carillons!

How is the carillon played?

The carillon hangs 110 feet above the street.  The ringing chamber or playing cabin is accessed by climbing 148 steps. Carillon bells are bolted to steel or wooden beams and do not move in performance. Instead, the clappers, which are connected by a direct mechanical linkage to the keys of the keyboard, move to strike the bell. The carillon’s mechanical playing action, like that of the piano, gives the performer the ability to control dynamics and phrasing by variation of touch, as with the piano. Although the traditional carillon keyboard (sometimes called a clavier) shares some similarities with other keyboard instruments, performance technique is unique to the carillon. The keyboard has a manual key (played by the hand) for each note in the carillon. These keys are sometimes called batons because they are wooden levers about 2 feet in length, and rounded at the playing end, resembling batons. In addition, there are one to two octaves of pedal keys, played with the feet that pull down the corresponding manual keys. This permits a performer to play the heavy bass bells with the feet, while still using hands in the middle and upper octaves. Up to six bells can thus be sounded at once. Although the keys are played with a closed fist, the carillonneur does not “pound” or “beat” the keys. A properly adjusted and maintained carillon allows the performer to play with a minimum of effort. The motion of the key is carried to the bell’s clapper by a wire, usually stainless steel. In the bell chamber the wire is attached to a transmission system that transfers the motion from a vertical wire to a horizontal wire that pulls the bell’s clapper. At rest, the clapper is about 2 inches from the bell wall. Immediately above the key is an adjuster that allows the performer to compensate for changes in wire length due to temperature changes. The bells of CHT can be played manually or automatically.    Clappers on the inside of the bells are for manual play, while strikers resembling tomahawks are pneumatically operated by a computer for the automatic play throughout the day. 

What Can the Carillon Play?

Answer – mostly anything if it can fit on 25 notes!  The music selected to play either manually or automatically is carefully chosen first with a thought to suit the tastes of people from various denominations who are listening in the Square.  Our rule of thumb:  what is played, how it’s played and when it’s played all reflects on the Holy Trinity community. Our carillon is rung for special recitals, weddings, funerals, and events on the square such as the annual Christmas tree lighting.   It played the Eagles pep song during the Super Bowl in 2018, and cheered on the Phillies with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 2008 World Series.   The automatic system plays daily at noon, 3:00pm and 6:00pm with the hour strike followed by two tunes. Of special note is the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” written by Holy Trinity’s Rector Phillips Brookes and set to music by Lewis H. Redner.  This beloved hymn tune can be heard throughout the holiday season on the bells.

Who Plays the Carillon?

Considering the fact that the carillon is a very civic instrument – its sound traveling for upwards of a mile in all directions – the instrument demands a professional touch. The carillonneur for CHT is Lisa Lonie, a native of Bucks County. She is also the carillonneur at two other local towers:  St. Thomas’ Whitemarsh and Princeton University.   She studied carillon with Messrs. Law and DellaPenna of Valley Forge, and is a carillonneur member of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America.  Lisa is also an instructor for the North American Carillon School and also maintains a robust teaching studio at Princeton University. 

Renovation of 2000

After 45 years of service, long time CHT carillonneur, Charles Bancroft, retired from the carillon in approximately 1945.  Thereafter, Mother Nature and time would eventually deteriorate the mechanisms of the instrument, rendering it unplayable.  The bells, however, would remain intact for the next several decades. In 2000, parishioner Emilie DeHellebranth bequeathed a generous gift enabling a complete restoration of the instrument.  A new playing console, playing cabin, automatic play system, transmission and support system, clappers and a practice console (located in the music office) were fabricated by the I.T. Verdin company of Ohio.  The bells hoisted down and taken to Ohio where they were cleaned carefully so not to alter the tuning or text and images embossed on the bells.  The 2000 renovation was follow by a new automatic computer system in 2015, funded in part by the generosity of Ed Weston and other supportive parishioners.

A Ringing Celebration

Often referred to as God’s tuning forks, the carillon welcomes the new millennium with a glorious sound.   The carillon of Holy Trinity – a dynamic and distinctive fixture on the Square – has been sounding its voice far beyond our property line for over 100 years.  While the church may not always be in clear sight, it certainly can be heard.    And it’s a beautiful song.