The Carillonneur

The Carillonneur

Walking through the 265 foot long Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, while gazing up to the soaring vaulted ceilings, one feels small. Moments later, as the small, wooden door to the bell tower stairs opens, and the climb to the top begins, one feels large.  The 271 narrow steps spiral to the top, with barely enough room for an adult in a winter coat. We traverse a wooden catwalk that spans a portion of the chapel's false ceiling, around the mechanical unit that once controlled the hourly chimes, past the massive 18.5 ton, F note bell, through a walkway with two inches of snow on the path, and finally, to the heated cabin.

Once inside, the beautifully carved wood instrument commands attention.  The second heaviest musical instrument in the world (second only to it's sister in New York), the carillon, is an organ-like instrument connected to 72 cast bronze bells - each playing a different note - and weighing a total of 199,900 pounds.  The Carillonneur pushes the batons with his fists to activate the clappers of the higher pitched bells, and uses his feet to sound the lower pitched bells.

Mr. Jerry Jelsema, who commutes from southwest Michigan each Friday to play the carillon for 30 minutes, organizes his sheet music, and tunes the bells prior to the noon performance. On this particular day, after a few inches of snow, the bells sound a bit flat, but a few strikes of the batons and the snow falls off.

While Jerry was tuning the carillon, I walked up a few additional spiral stairs to a door that led to the outdoors - to the parapets, 188 feet above the street, near the top of the chapel's 207 foot tall bell tower.  I was alone, yet I shared the view with the stone figures carved at the top of the tower - Thomas Aquinas, John Bunyan, Thomas a Kempis, and Erasmus. Breathtaking views even on a cold, foggy day.

Watching Over Everything

Oddly enough, as I returned to the cabin, I found that even though it was winter, Jerry opened all of the cabin windows. He explained that this was so he could hear the bells as he played -- it was rather difficult to hear all of the bells from inside the cabin. At the stroke of noon, he began to play the carillon with effortless, fluid movements, a testament to his musical talents.  If I wasn't in the cabin enjoying the performance, Jerry would have been playing alone, never seeing any of his audience outside, never receiving any feedback.

Mr. Jelsema played for 30 minutes, and described the process to me as he played. Following the performance, we locked up and headed back down the narrow, spiral stairs, opening the door to the massive chapel interior.

Who knew so much went in to making those beautiful sounds of the chapel bell tower.

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