What Should the Carillon Play?

Carillonneurs perform for incidental listeners largely unfamiliar with the instrument’s repertoire. Ask an average Jane on the street, “What are some famous carillon composers? Or carillon pieces?” And I bet you’ll get some blank stares.

blank stareWith the exception of an elite group of aficionados who really know their stuff, the vast majority of people in countries with carillons do not know the main figures in our rarefied tradition. This provides us carillonneurs more freedom in selecting our repertoire. If our audience doesn’t have many expectations of what we should play, then we could choose just about anything to arrange and perform. That’s the positive spin. Or, as a carillonneur you could lament the general public’s lack of basic knowledge and take on the mantle of a crusader to acquaint them with the best music written for the carillon.

The location of carillonneurs seem to affect which way they skew along this repertoire continuum. As Tiffany Ng noted in her comment, European carillonneurs seem comfortable with playing arrangements of popular music, like pop, rock, and jazz. She speculates that the acceptance of the carillon as an important musical instrument and tradition in their countries of origin allow them more leeway in choosing music that might otherwise threaten a sense of prestige. This is counterintuitive on the face of it, since one might expect that carillonneurs from the birthplace of the instrument would embrace its historical repertoire at the expense of exploring the new, but I think she’s right.

In North America, the story is different. Here carillonneurs seem more invested in presenting a particular repertoire, some of it virtuosic, which is composed for the instrument. Careful arrangements of folk songs and western art works abound too. Arrangements of popular music of the day—pop, rock, jazz, etc. are not as common. Some of this is due to copyright laws. But part of it, I think, is due to some carillonneurs’ discomfort at having the carillon turn into a kind of radio that channels popular music of the day that would strip the instrument of its history and identity. And they have a point there too. If carillonneurs were to discontinue maintaining an established and virtuosic repertoire, then why not just replace the carillon console with a computer that can play simple renditions of recognizable tunes on the bells and do away with the performer altogether? There is a lot at stake.

So is the answer somewhere in the middle? I’d have to say yes. I am a woman of moderation, after all.

For bell listeners out there, what catches your attention when you hear them played? Recognizable tunes? Classical arrangements? Intense, virtuosic pieces?

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