Towering Sounds with the Carillon Bells of Princeton

All it takes is one highly skilled carillonneur, two thumping fists and 67 cast-bronze bells.

Lisa Lonie stands near the largest bells in Grover Cleveland Tower. When played each Sunday at 1 p.m., the music can be heard up to a mile away.
Lisa Lonie stands near the largest bells in Grover Cleveland Tower. When played each Sunday at 1 p.m., the music can be heard up to a mile away.
Photo by Robert Yaskovic

It’s the largest type of musical instrument in the world, has been around for 500 years, and New Jersey has four of them. Meet the carillon—and Lisa Lonie, Princeton University’s official carillonneur.

Like church bells, carillon bells are housed in towers, often in churches. But church bells swing; carillon bells are hung stationary, with only the clapper moving. They are played manually—with no electrical assistance—from a console that resembles an organ, complete with foot pedals. But instead of keys, the console has wood batons that the carillonneur strikes with half-closed fists. The repetition sometimes causes calluses, confesses Lonie, who gives concerts at Princeton every Sunday afternoon throughout the school year, rain or shine, and who coordinates a summer series of concerts with guest carillonneurs from around the globe.

Lonie emphasizes the public nature of her performances. “The sound travels about a mile,” she says. “Even more on a clear, cold day. You get to make music, but not inside a hall where people need to pay to hear.” On Sundays (except during PhD. finals) listeners gather outdoors—some on picnic blankets—for her 45-minute concerts under the University’s Grover Cleveland Tower. Lonie herself is perched 75 feet up in the tower, having climbed 150 dark, narrow, winding, open-air, stone steps to an enclosed aerie.

Lonie invariably leads off her program with the university’s anthem, “Old Nassau.” For a closer, she might play what she calls “a rip-roarer” like “Preludio Cou Cou” by Matthias van den Gheyn, an 18th-century Belgian piece written for the carillon. (You can distinctly hear the cuckoo’s refrain in Lonie’s rendition.)

In between, Lonie, who is known for her musical wit and creativity, plays a repertoire that is surprisingly populist, mixing classical pieces with the American songbook. This past Valentine’s Day, which happened to fall on a Sunday, her selections included “Misty,” “Love Me Tender” and Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” That last number was a special request from her husband, Paul, who was listening below on what turned out to be one of the coldest days of the year. On August 14, which is guaranteed to be warmer, Lonie will inaugurate what she calls a “family fun and frolic” recital, for which she’ll play the carillon in combination with a prerecorded narration of Saint-Saens’s “Carnival of the Animals,” as well as selections from Mary Poppins and other “tunes for the young at heart,” as she calls them.

Recently, I was able to sit in on a concert, during which Lonie graciously let me strike the baton to one of the larger bells—an experience I immediately described to her as “inordinately satisfying.” Toward the end of the recital, another group of visitors arrived, and one of them took Lonie up on the same offer. The fellow’s response? Amazingly enough, “This is very satisfying!”

Lonie, the first female carillonneur at Princeton, became smitten with carillons the first time she heard one, when she was in her teens. “I was playing in a hand-bell choir at the time,” she says. “I turned to my mother and said, ‘Forget about hand-bells!’” Lonie started taking lessons and was fortunate enough to be able to practice at a church in Newtown, Pennsylvania, near her childhood home.

Lonie, who has been playing the carillon for nearly 40 years, considers herself a carillon evangelist, and as such offers free lessons to Princeton students, faculty and residents who have keyboard experience. She is also lead carillonneur on the oldest carillon in North America, which dates to 1882 and is located at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. She gives recitals frequently throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.

The sound that peals and floats down from carillon bells is surprisingly nuanced, since the keyboard and foot pedals allow variations in artistic expression through touch. Each note is distinct and the melody recognizable, unlike the clanging of church bells. New Jersey’s other carillons are located in Rumson (St. Georges-by-the-River, with 26 bells), Morristown (St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 47 bells) and Plainfield (Grace Church, 47 bells). Installed in 1923, the latter is the oldest carillon in the state.

To be worthy of the name carillon, the instrument must have a minimum of 23 bells. The Princeton carillon has 67 cast-bronze beauties weighing from 13 pounds to 6 1/2 tons—making it the fifth largest carillon in the world. A gift of the Class of 1892 and installed in 1927, it has been “ringing its musical message for more than 80 years,” boasts Lonie, who was appointed university carillonneur in 2012.  “Carillon bells stay in tune for hundreds of years,” Lonie marvels, recalling one she played in Belgium that “dated to something like 1640 and was still in tune!”

On the other hand, the wire cables that connect each bell clapper to the keyboard need to be adjusted from time to time. “Only three companies in the U.S. maintain carillons,” Lonie says. Princeton’s gets yearly maintenance.

The university’s 24th Annual Summer Carillon Concert Series will be held every Sunday in July and August this year. Lonie has lined up carillonneurs from around the United States as well as Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The hour-long concerts are always free and open to the public. Unlike Lonie’s school-year performances, these are formal recitals, complete with printed programs. In addition to the family concert on August 14, the summer schedule includes duet carillonneurs on July 17, one of whom will, appropriately, be Lisa Lonie herself.

The Princeton University carillon is located at the Graduate School, 88 College Road West. For information about the carillon and the concert series, call 609-258-3654 or visit this website (search “carillon”) or go to the Princeton University carillon Facebook page.

Pat Tanner is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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