First American Carillon Keeps the Bells Ringing in Danbury

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Have you heard the sweet sound of the carillon?

 

Traditional church hymns and other recognizable tunes flood the downtown Danbury area every Sunday after service at The St. James Episcopal Church on West Street.

 

If the term carillon doesn’t ring a bell, the appearance of this percussion instrument may.  It takes on the form of a piano with sky-high strings that connect to at least twenty-three cup-shaped bells, and the larger ones are played via foot by the pedals below. They are usually stored in a bell tower or at the very top of a church, such as the one depicted in the Disney movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where protagonist Quasimodo was a carillonneur, a French term for a carillon player.

 

 

“The moment when the St. James chimes began to ring. I know this music like my own home, and I still wasn’t prepared for the effect, which was stunning. I expect to remember it for the rest of my life.”

 

 

“I started playing in 1988 when I didn’t even know what a carillon was,” said German native and St. James carillonneur Christel Davis in an interview.

 

Davis’ favorite song to play is “A La Hornpipe” from Handel’s “Water Music”, and even though she has been playing for over fourteen years, she admits that she still needs to highlight the pedal parts of pieces on her sheet music. One major qualification for playing this instrument is a familiarity with reading music.

 

“Learn to read music first, it will take a while,” advised Christel Davis.

 

Photo by Caressa Pittman.

Carillon instructors are doing way more than teaching students to read music at St. James. With this antique instrument, they are also introducing an ancient diversion to a new generation. They have put together a few bi-weekly summer student carillon concerts, free to the public in the church garden. The church is located at 25 West Street in Danbury, Conn, and the first show will take place on Wednesday, July 11 at 12:30pm.  The series will conclude by August 1.

 

 

“We do not charge anything for teaching. We only ask you to play. It keeps tradition alive,” said Bogart.

 

 

St. James’ carillon students have performed throughout the Danbury area. Kristen O’Connor, a former student, played for Charles Ives Day in 2011, ringing the bells at the end of one of the native composer’s pieces, which was being performed a few blocks away atop the Charles A. Bardo Parking Garage on Library Place.  Audience member Joe Barron wrote on his blog of the memorable moment:

 

“No studio recording or concert-hall performance will ever recapture, for me the moment when the St. James chimes began to ring,” writes Barron on “Liberated Dissonance“. “I know this music like my own home, and I still wasn’t prepared for the effect, which was stunning. I expect to remember it for the rest of my life.”

 

Similar to the piano, the carillon requires knowledge of the treble and bass clef.  Players must also master playing with both hands for the keys and their feet for the pedals. It sounds like a very difficult task, but those at St. James make it appear rather simple as they seek more players to train for their five-person carillon crew.

 

“In the past, we’ve had as many as eight players,” said George Bogart, a Mexican-born, St. James carillonneur with Swedish lineage, in an interview.

 

Both Davis and Bogart come from backgrounds where carillon playing is common. It is in their blood to play this instrument, and as a way of giving back to the community, they want to train more carillon players free of charge.

 

“We do not charge anything for teaching. We only ask you to play. It keeps tradition alive,” said Bogart.

 

Photo by Caressa Pittman.

The St. James carillon seems to have a track record of developing significant moments, one being that it is a tremendous part of American history itself.

 

“We have the first American built carillon. Others were made in places such as Holland, France and Belgium,” said Bogart, who began playing himself in 1992.

 

Meneely and Co. in Watervliet, New York were the first American company to produce chimes and carillons. A donation from member Ella S. Bulkley’s estate after her death in 1927 afforded the church most of their bells. With the money, they purchased the $100,000 antique bells that those in Danbury are fortunate enough to hear every week from the West Street church.

 

Not only does this place of worship hold the first American carillon, but in 1762 St. James also gained notoriety for being the first Episcopal Church in Danbury. After rebuilding, relocating and reestablishing, St. James Episcopal Church continues to keep its historical bells ringing, and is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.

 

 

For information on the free summer carillon concerts or free carillon lessons, please contact the parish office at (203)748-3561.  Visit the St. James website at saintjamesdanbury.org.

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