Does That Ring a Bell?

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Oct 29, 2011

"Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us."
Martin Luther

Every summer Evie and I talk about attending the Summer Carillon Concert Series ten (10) minutes from our home in the Valley Forge National Park. Under the leadership of Doug Gefvert, Carillonneur at the Washington Memorial National Carillon, the free concerts are held on Wednesday evenings at 7:30 PM. 

Over the years we have kept saying we must attend sometime, but with the busyness of life it has just never worked out. That all changed on July 20, 2011. Just as the concert was beginning we were on our way home driving through the Valley Forge National Park on Route 23. 

We quickly turned into the parking lot where about 100 people were already listening to 
the music of the bells. Couples and individuals were sitting on lawn chairs and blankets. Some were munching on snacks they had brought with them or had just purchased at the refreshment stand. We sat in our car with the windows rolled down, the sunroof open, and our seats tilted back as we breathed deep. What great music! 

On a large screen TV we watched Stefano Colletti, Carillonneur at the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) in Douai, France who was the guest musician of the evening at work high up in the tower. The program began with the Star Spangled Banner and the National Anthem of France and included a Baroque Prelude as well as numerous French and Italian pieces including a Jazz Postlude. 

The cornerstone for the Washington Memorial National Carillon was laid on June 19, 1903 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the evacuation of the Continental Army from Valley Forge. In 1917, 14 years later, a chapel was also completed on the property. 

The Carillon which was completed in 1953 includes 58 tuned bronze bells representing all states and U.S. territories and ranks as one of the world's largest and most beautiful. The bells weigh 26 tons - the largest weighs 8,000 pounds and the smallest is 13 pounds - and cover a range of five (5) octaves. 

Many modern carillons are played electronically but the Valley Forge carillon is played entirely by hand, from a keyboard located in the midst of the bells. The bells do not swing but are bolted stationary in a steel framework. Keys and pedals are connected to the bells' clappers by a mechanical system of direct cranks, roller bars and steel cables. The keyboard of 58 oak batons and 24 pedals provides the carillonneur sensitive music control of the instrument. 

Of course, none of us concert goers were thinking about the technical details or engineering of carillons, the heaviest of all extant musical instruments. Our hearts and souls lifted as the guest musician played out his heart on that amazing instrument. 

How does someone become a carillonneur? Doug Gefvert grew up singing in his hometown-choir and taking organ lessons from a local church organist. Although he earned a Master's Degree in Music History from Temple University, it was during his undergraduate program at Westminster College that he was introduced to the carillon by one of his professors. Prior to coming to the Washington Memorial National Carillon he was Bellmaster at historic old Christ Church in Philadelphia for 21 years. He has written and arranged music for the carillon and given recitals throughout the U.S. and Canada. 

As I look back on that warm July evening my mind does not fixate on technical details of the weight of the bells or the cables or clappers of that unique musical instrument, or even the profound history which unfolded on the sacred soil of Valley Forge National Park. Rather, I ponder the echoes of exquisite music made by a passionate guest carillonneur. 

Those bells will definitely call us back on another Wednesday evening. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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