A carillon is an idiophone percussion instrument played with a keyboard. It consists of at least 23 cast bronze bells suspended in chromatic order and sounded harmoniously together.
The word carillon derives from the Old French “carignon” (a variant of quarregon), which means “four bells”. While the first crafted bells come from the Bronze Age, only until the 15th-century Flemish bellfounders discovered the method of properly tuning them. This method happens solely at the bell foundry. Unlike most musical instruments, bells do not lose their tuning over time.
The 17th century was a golden period for the manufacture of excellent carillons. Later, by the 19th, the practice of tuning carillon bells had almost died out, only to resurrect at the turn of the 20th century. Then, it gradually surpassed the accuracy and tuning of old 17th-century bells and contributed to the development of the fine contemporary instruments that remain today. As a result, many historical instruments with the appropriate number of bells and playing mechanisms are referred to as carillons. This sometimes happens regardless of whether they are or not fully harmonious to the ear. The Guild does not rank carillons according to their tuning characteristics. However, individual members discuss it, discuss other aspects of carillon quality, and encourage different refinements.
A carillon is a type of keyboard instrument. On a manual keyboard made up of rounded wooden batons, players use their hands to play. Short chromatic, black keys, sit raised above diatonic, white keys. All this, arranged in the same way as on a piano. However, keys sit spaced further apart—about 46 millimeters. On the other hand, the chromatic keys rest raised 97 millimeters above the others.
A wire, typically made of stainless steel, links each key to the transmission mechanism. Pressing a key pulls on this wire. The wire then connects with other wires and pulleys. This movement allows a clapper to swing against the inner wall of the key’s accompanying bell. Clappers sit about 50 millimeters apart from the bell wall while at rest. Gravity is enough to pull the clapper out from the bell on bigger ones. Smaller bells though have return springs that bring the clapper back automatically after each keystroke. This prevents the bell from ringing more than once with each keystroke.
A wire adjuster known as a turnbuckle is located directly above each key. This enables the performer to adjust for wire length due to temperature-related shifts.
A frame made of steel or wooden beams, which sits at the top of a tower, houses the carillon’s cast bronze cup-shaped bells. The number and size of these bells, the available space, and the height and structure of the tower, determine the bells’ arrangement. Particularly heavy bells often rest underneath the playing cabin to improve tonal distribution.
The carillon repertoire heavily skews against newer compositions. Additionally, just about 15 pieces of carillon music composed prior to 1900 are known to exist today. As with the early history of the pipe organ, performers relied heavily on improvisation. Archival evidence shows that many early carillonneurs had to instruct others, especially as they neared retirement. Also, keyboard music in the Baroque period was not composed for a specific keyboard instrument. As a result of all this, the carillon’s repertoire is fairly similar to that of the harpsichord, organ, and piano.