In Search of North America's First Carillon

by Jeffrey Bossin

    Ever since William Gorham Rice's book Carillon Music and Singing Towers of the Old World and the New was published in 1925, many have considered the instrument which was installed in 1922 in the Metropolitan Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to be North America's first carillon.[1] Rice does mention among others four other instruments, one each for Notre Dame, Indiana; Buffalo, New York; and two for Philadelphia, Pennsylania, which predate the Toronto carillon, but he describes these as „assemblages of bells“ „which do not entirely fulfill the definition of a modern attunded carillon“.[2] In spite of this, these four have been repeatedly referred to as North American carillons existing previous to 1922.[3] The oldest of these, a purely automatic instrument with twenty-three bells cast by the French founder Bollée and delivered in 1856 to the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, has been claimed to be North America’s first carillon.[4]  However, since the articles of incorporation of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America define a carillon as an instrument „played from a keyboard permitting control of expression through variation of touch“, and since the World Carillon Federation further specifies „a baton keyboard“, it cannot be stated that Notre Dame aquired a carillon until the bells were equipped with such a keyboard in the mid-1950s.[5] By then it was far from being the continent’s first. What then of the other three „assemblages of bells“?
    The first of these was a series of forty-three bells which Bollée delivered in 1870 to St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo, New York.[6] They were ordered by a Catholic bishop who had been suitably impressed by those of Notre Dame in 1866 and may have been originally intended for an exhibition in Paris, where they were displayed in 1867. Bollée, who must have considered the carillon keyboard an outdated and cumbersome hindrance to playing, had recently fitted his instruments in Châlons-sur-Marne[7] and Châtellerault, France, with new types of pneumatic and mechanical piano keyboards, and the Buffalo instrument was duly equipped with a pneumatic one. Since these consoles, however, did not permit any „control of expression through variation of touch“, the instrument in Buffalo does not fit the definition of a carillon. It was not a success. By 1913 the peculiar console had been removed, and twenty of the bells were attached to a clavier to form a diatonic chime from c3 to a5. In 1927 the bells were finally taken down and placed in the church crypt. A similiar kind of experimental instrument with twenty-six bells was installed by Paccard in St. Vincent´s Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1900. Instead of a carillon keyboard, it had a type of harmonium console with piano keys. By pumping the pedals, the carillonneur set a large cylinder in motion whose rotation drove the instrument’s action.[8] Again no variation of touch was possible, so this instrument also does not correspond to the definition of a carillon.
    Of the so-called four early American carillons, that only leaves the twenty-five bells cast by Severinus van Aerschodt of Louvain, Belgium, for the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, dedicated in 1883. Did these actually belong to a carillon? Although van Aerschodt was chiefly engaged in casting genuine carillons for cities in and outside of Belgium, he also delivered instruments in 1881 and 1883 equipped with a so-called smulders clavier, a type of piano keyboard named after its inventor, piano manufacturer Frederick Smulders of Maastrict, the Netherlands. This console would have been especially appropriate for installations in areas where the art of carillon playing was virtually unknown. However, a recent examination of the tower of the Church of the Holy Trinity has provided conclusive evidence that the instrument originally installed there was in actual fact a two-octave carillon: „On the level below the bells one finds the ruins of the clavier; three batons and one pedal“[9] Though at present in a state of total disrepair, the instrument in the Church of the Holy Trinity was thus the first carillon to be installed in the United States and on the North American continent according to today’s official definition. And it was played by a carillonneur, Charles W. H. Bancroft, who began playing about 1900 at the age of about fifteen and performed for forty-five years.[10] Percival Price, who has been named as North America’s first carillonneur, knew of Bancroft; yet the latter was never accorded the recognition due to him as a pioneer in his field. [11] how was this possible?
    One of the cardinal reasons is the evident confusion in the minds of carillonneurs and carillon scholars

[1] See William Gorham Rice, Carillon Music and Singing Towers of the Old World and the New, rev. 2nd and enl. Ed. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1930), pp. 278c-281, and Ronald Barnes, „The North American Carillon Movement: The Instrument, its Players and its Music,“ Bulletin of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America XXXVI (1987), p. 20.

[2] Rice, p. 447.

[3] In 1933 Frank Percival Price listed three of these. He does not mention the Paccard instrument in Philadelphia, however, and mistakenly notes the date of the casting of Bollée’s bells for Notre Dame as 1866. See Frank Percival Price, The Carillon (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 50. For a complete listing see Milford Myhre, „The Development of the Art of the Carillon in North America“,Bulletin of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America XXIII (1972), p. 26, and William De Turk, „Meneely Bells as an American Heritage“, Bulletin of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America XXVII (1978), p. 32.

[4] See Andre Lehr, Van paardebel tot speelklok. De geschiedenis van de klokgietkunst in de Lage Landen, 2nd rev. Ed. (Zaltbommel, Netherlands: Europese Bibliothek, 1981), p. 275, and James Lawson, „North America’s First Carillon“, Bulletin of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America XXXV (1986), p. 19.

[5] See the articles of incorporation of the World Carillon Federation, article 3, paragraph 15.

[6] The instrument had the following range: c3-d-e-f-f#-g-a-a#-b-c4-d-e-f-f#-g-a-a#-b-c-chromatic-c7.

[7] This was originally installed with a baton-and-pedal keyboard.

[8] I am indebted to Janet Dundore for this information. This type of keyboard was called the Maisonnave keyboard after its inventor canon Maisonnave. The Philadelphia instrument was converted to a carillon by Arthur Lynds Bigelow in 1947. 

[9] George Matthew Jr., „2nd Oldest U.S. Carillon“ Carillon News No. 41 (Spring 1989), p. 3. Those, who like Rice, would like to discount this instrument as being a carillon because the tuning of the bells does not measure up to modern standards would also have to disqualify all badly-tuned historic and modern instruments, leading to endless disagreements about which were acceptable as carillons and which were not. In contrast to other contemporary founders, the van Aerschodts did actually tune their bells, if only their fundamentals, and Felix van Aerschodt even began employing modern tuning lathes as early as 1890. The van Aerschodts must have also tuned their bells to the scale of equal temperament in accordance with the musical practice of the century. It is however a sobering fact that the advent of the so-called Taylor True-Harmonic-System of tuning around 1900 did not put an end to the manufacturing of poorly-tuned carillon bells, which several foundries have delivered in the course of this century and which indeed are still being produced today.

[10] I am indebted to Janet Dundore, who visited Mrs. Bancroft in a rest home in 1989, for this information. It is thus possible that there were others who played the Holy Trinity instrument in the years directly following its installation in 1883.

[11] See James B. Slater, „A Tribute to North America’s First Carillonneur“,Bulletin of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America XXIII (1972), p. 3. Mary Mesquita Dahlmer is at present the earliest known woman carillonneur in the United States and North America. See Marilyn Clark, „ First Carillonneur“, Carillon News No. 36 (Fall 1986), p. 17, editorial note. However, she was not the first carillonneur at the Church of Our Lady of Good Voyage. This was George B. Stevens, organist at Glouster’s Independent (Universal) Church, who dedicated the instrument on July 23, 1922, and gave recitals during the rest of the summer. See Martin A. Gilman „ Our Lady of Good Voyage Church Carillon, Glouster 1922-1972“, Bulletin of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America XXIII (1972), p. 39. Bancroft is at present the earliest known carillonneur in North America. However, a thorough search of the church archives is necessary to determine if he had any predecessors.

© Jeffrey Bossin