Welcome to the “John Courter” Carillon Page
John Courter Playing the Carillon at Berea College
In 2008, TAM represented the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America to perform at the World Carillon Federation Congress in Groningen, The Netherlands. As an active clinician, TAM has given master classes, lectures and education programs extensively. Her recent invited lectures include bells and bell music in China, and music for carillon and orchestra. Her carillon compact disk “The Bells of Iowa State” was released in 2004. At present, she is the Cownie Professor of Music (the university carillonneur) and chair of the keyboard division at Iowa State University.
Tom Designed Instruments
A carillon is an outdoor musical instrument consisting of a minimum of 23 bells and as many as 70. A group of bells numbering 22 or fewer is known as a chime, such as the set of 10 bells in Berea College’s Phelps Stokes Chapel. Chime bells are normally used to play single-line melodies. Carillon music with harmony in addition to melody and rhythm is made possible by having the larger number of bells.
Berea’s carillon was built and installed by the Verdin Company, Cincinnati, Ohio, the world’s largest maker of carillons and other bell instruments. Richard Strauss, of Verdin, is the carillon’s designer.
Every carillon is a unique, custom-designed instrument, but the basic structure and playing mechanism is the same for all manually played instruments. The bells are hung stationary, bolted to steel frames installed in the an open or enclosed bell tower. Only the clappers move. The clappers are connected through a series of mechanical linkages to the carillon’s distinctive keyboard which is located in the playing room positioned directly below the bells. Lever-like keys are depressed with the loosely-clenched fists to play the smaller bells and the larger bells are played from a pedal keyboard. The force of the player’s hand or foot determines how loud or soft the tone is.
At Berea, the bells are hung enclosed in Draper Tower, with sound openings on all four sides. The unusually large playing room at Berea accommodates 15 -20 people to observe carillon performances.
Vital Statistics on the Bells of Berea’s Carillon
Berea’s carillon bells range in size from the 2,750 lb. “bourdon,” or largest bell, with a diameter of 50″, to the smallest, which is 5 1/2″ in diameter and weighs 18 1/2 lbs. The bourdon was the first bell to be raised and installed in the tower with the others following in descending size order. The bells were cast and tuned in the Netherlands by Petit and Fritsen Bellfoundry, makers of bells since 1660, and are made of “bell bronze,” an alloy of 80% copper and 20% tin. With 56 bells, the carillon has a range of four and 1/2 octaves, making it possible to play virtually any piece of music in full melody and harmony.
Carillon bells are specially tuned at five different points inside the bell, which ensures that each bell is in tune not only within itself, but with all the others in the series. Once a well-tuned bell leaves the foundry, it never needs tuning again.
Several of the larger bells have raised letter inscriptions and intricate designs cast in bronze using the ancient “lost wax” process. Inscribed on the bourdon is the College’s motto “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth (Acts 17:26).” Referred to as “the Trustees Bell”, the bourdon was purchased with a gift from the College’s Trustees Memorial Fund. On the third largest bell is an ancient Sanskrit poem and on the fourth largest bell, is a verse from Psalm 109, “Awake my Soul! I will sing and make melody!” Former College president John B. Stephenson and his wife Jane contributed to the project, and their names are inscribed on two of the bells.
Background on Berea College’s Carillon
Berea’s carillon project began in the 1970s, through the efforts of professor of music John Courter, with a desire to add more bells to the chimes in the College’s Phelps Stokes Chapel’s tower. Since it is difficult to match the tone and quality of old bells and new ones from different foundries, a plan was developed to leave the existing 10-bell chime intact and install a complete carillon in the Draper tower. It wasn’t until 1992 that a matched set of 52 perfectly tuned bells became available for sale. The College was able to purchase the set with a memorial gift.
To finally make the carillon a reality, Berea president Dr. Larry Shinn and the College’s board of trustees had four more bells cast by the same firm in 1999 and began finalizing the plan to install the carillon in the Draper Building.
A New World Standard
Although almost 25 years in the making, Berea’s instrument is in the forefront of the carillon world. Working with the Verdin Company, the carillon’s designer, Richard Strauss, developed a new world standard keyboard using ergonomic studies and the best features of both European and American keyboard dimensions (currently these differ significantly). Strauss delivered a lecture on Berea College’s new keyboard at the International Congress of the World Federation of Carillonneurs earlier in July in Springfield, Ill. Berea’s new practice keyboard received rave reviews from carillonneurs from around the world at the International Congress.
Berea’s keyboard also incorporates the use of connecting rods made of polycarbonate, rather than stainless steel, which can more easily be bent. The flexible carbon rods ensure the carillon’s tone is not adversely affected.
Courter, an internationally known carillonneur and a composer for the instrument, began playing the carillon while he was a student at Michigan State University. He continued his studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where he received his master’s degree in music. In 1987 and 1995 he spent sabbaticals at the Netherlands Carillon School, performing recitals and earning the Performing Artist’s Diploma, the carillonneur’s highest level of achievement.
Courter has won several international prizes with his original carillon compositions and his works have been published in Germany, the Netherlands and the United States. He has performed throughout the U. S. and Europe, and in 1993, was awarded the prestigious Berkeley Medal for “Distinguished Service to the Carillon” as a performer and composer for the instrument.
The College’s carillon will serve as a performance instrument and be used for student instruction. The historic Phelps Stokes Chime, a part of Berea’s campus since 1917, continues to be heard. Its Westminster chime sounds every quarter-hour and students regularly play tunes on the chime. Plans currently call for “bell sounds” from one or the other instrument to be heard on campus at 5 p.m. most days of the week.
How Berea College’s Carillon Compares to others
Berea’s carillon brings to four the number of carillons in Kentucky, and becomes the state’s largest. Those at Eastern Kentucky University and at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville are played from electric piano-type keyboards, which do not have control of expression. The Carroll Chime in Covington is known as a “light weight.” Its largest bell is approximately 600 lbs. and it has a range of four octaves.