You are here

That Mysterious Place

By Colvin Randall, on January 1, 2018

This article first appeared in issue 296 of Longwood Chimes, from Winter 2018.

Now that the Main Fountain Garden is open, visitors can once again access the lower half of one of the most mysterious features at Longwood—the Chimes Tower. Kids and grown-ups alike are fascinated by this fairytale structure that stands prominently in the landscape.

Longwood founder Pierre S. du Pont built the 61-foot-tall structure in 1929–1930, after visiting in 1925 an ancient fortified tower at Châtillon-Coligny on the Loing River in France. One of the Coligny family’s châteaux had been purchased by Pierre’s ancestors, so he was interested in all their buildings for historical and sentimental reasons. The French tower sits by a quiet stream, but Longwood’s tower overlooks a rushing waterfall that cascades from spring through fall.

Chimes Tower under construction, 1929. Chimes Tower under construction, 1929. Longwood Gardens Library & Archives.

To make the tower come alive, Mr. du Pont purchased the largest set of chimes he could find from the J.C. Deagan Company of Chicago, after first borrowing one to test its carrying power. Twenty-five tubular chimes costing $15,850 were installed in the upper tower chamber. On April 20, 1930, Mr. du Pont noted that the “chimes in tower [were] rung for the first time today.” They pealed the Westminster quarter hours during the day and played “old familiar music” on Sundays and on special occasions from an automatic player using paper rolls, like a player piano. Apparently a switch in the Peirce-du Pont House could activate the chimes from the du Pont residence.

In 1956, the chimes were replaced by a 32-note Deagan electronic carillon with loudspeakers that sounded until 1981; it played 16,000 daytime concerts and 600 evening concerts. Real bells were first proposed for the Tower in 1977, but the idea was shelved. Instead, a 122-bell Schulmerich electronic carillon was played indoors live from a keyboard on an “island” in the flooded Exhibition Hall during the 1985 Christmas display, and a small set of 18 cast bells played automatically outside the East Conservatory for Christmas in 1996 and 1997. Finally, in 2000 Longwood commissioned the Dutch firm Royal Eijsbouts to create a 62-bell carillon for the Chimes Tower.

Our Carillon in Action

By definition, a carillon has to have at least 23 chromatically tuned bells. Bronze bells appeared in China as early as 1500 BC, but it was 3,000 years later, in 1500 AD, that the carillon was invented in Holland. Today there are 290 hand-played carillons in the Netherlands and in neighboring Belgium, more than anywhere else, with some dating back to the 17th century. In North America there are 204 carillons (190 in the US, 11 in Canada, and three in Mexico), with 11 traditional instruments in the Delaware Valley plus a 30-bell automated carillon at Alfred I. du Pont’s estate, Nemours.

Workers at the Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry modeling a “false bell” in sand and wax over the inner core.Workers at the Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry modeling a “false bell” in sand and wax over the inner core.

Longwood’s carillon combines centuries-old casting techniques with modern technology. Royal Eijsbouts used computers to design the instrument, but the bells were cast in the traditional, time-honored way. Each bell required a two-part mold. The core or inner mold is made of sand and cement, coated to be fireproof. On top of this, a “false bell” is modeled in sand and wax over the core. This temporary bell is identical to the ultimate bronze bell, including the applied decoration. The entire form is enclosed in a steel casing that is filled with molding sand. After drying for several days, the outside mold is lifted away and the wax bell painstakingly removed. The outside mold is then replaced over the core to create a hollow space into which is poured molten bronze made of 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin heated to 2,012 degrees. After cooling, the bell is unmolded and sandblasted. The raw tones are electronically analyzed, then the bell is tuned by thinning the inside wall while the bell spins on a lathe. Tuning is done only once, at the factory, and is permanent.

Longwood’s bells arrived from the Netherlands in March 2001. The instrument’s steel frame was erected in the drained Pear-Shaped Basin next to the Tower, and the 62 bells were carefully bolted to the frame. The five octaves of bells range in size from the lowest B-flat, called the bourdon, which is 6 feet in diameter and 6,908 pounds, to the highest C, only 6 inches in diameter and 20 pounds.

Worker guiding the carillon bells and supporting frame into the top of the Chimes Tower Worker guiding the carillon bells and supporting frame into the top of the Chimes Tower, March 14, 2001. Photo by Larry Albee.

The roof of the Chimes Tower was removed and, on March 14, 2001, a 275-ton crane lifted 38,000 pounds of bells attached to the 17,000-pound frame, a total of 55,000 pounds. It was a tight fit into the top of the Tower, with only inches to spare. A new roof was then installed and, after further assembly, the instrument was inaugurated on Memorial Day, 2001.

At the top of the Tower’s 82-step spiral staircase, nestled under the bells and frame, a small cabin houses the computer and keyboards that play the instrument. The bells are firmly bolted to the frame and do not swing. Each bell can be struck two ways, either by a cast-iron clapper, or by a bronze hammer energized by a powerful electromagnet.

The electric strikers can be activated from a piano-like keyboard that is touch sensitive. Each keystroke is translated into an electromagnetic pulse that moves the hammer gently or forcefully, depending on the velocity of the keystroke. This varies the volume. The carillon can thus be played automatically from a computer that stores performances recorded directly from the electric keyboard. Pieces can also be recorded on a traditional practice keyboard located in a nearby studio. The songs recorded there are loaded into the Tower computer from a thumb drive or from a direct Internet connection. In fact, it is possible to control the instrument from afar, including the Netherlands, where Eijsbouts has diagnosed problems and tweaked schedules from their office!

Try it for Yourself

From the highest pitch of its smallest bell to the lowest pitch of its largest bell, try your hand at playing the Longwood Carillon.

Longwood’s carillon can also be played the traditional way, with a live performer—the carillonneur—at a baton keyboard. Each large wooden baton key pulls a wire that runs vertically through the ceiling to a rocker arm. This in turn pulls a horizontal wire connected to the clapper. Surprisingly, the clapper moves only an inch or so yet makes quite a sound, either soft or loud, depending on how forcefully the performer strikes the key. This traditional method of playing is purely mechanical and uses no electricity to ring the bells.

A piano keyboard has 88 keys and is 4 feet wide. By comparison, Longwood’s baton keyboard is 6 feet wide with 62 large wooden batons for the hands and 26 pedals for the feet that duplicate the lowest 26 hand keys. The keys are laid out sequentially as on a piano or organ, except that on the carillon they are much bigger, and they are all a natural maple color. Each baton or pedal controls one bell clapper.

Carillon sheet music looks like piano music, but usually both hands play from the upper, or right-hand, staff, while the feet play from the lower, or left-hand, staff. The carillonneur has total control over the intensity and expressiveness of each note, although since there are no dampers, the bell tones overlap and decay naturally. Some performers wrap their little fingers to cushion the blows required to strike the batons with their fists. Playing a fast piece that uses lots of bells can be a challenge when the carillonneur has to reach for keys far away in both directions. It’s surprising how quickly a skilled performer can play.

In addition to daily automatic playing, live concerts by carillonneurs from around the world occur from spring through fall. A highlight after a live performance is the possibility of climbing to the top of the tower to view the bells and clavier at close range. The panoramic view of the surrounding landscape from above is an added bonus.

A spectacular view of the revitalized Main Fountain Garden, as seen from the top of the Chimes TowerA spectacular view of the revitalized Main Fountain Garden, as seen from the top of the Chimes Tower, August, 2017. Photo by Daniel Traub.

Although Longwood’s carillon is relatively young, it has achieved prominence. Two CDs of bell music have been released. For four days in June 2009, more than 130 carillonneurs and bell makers attended the 67th Congress of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America, held at Longwood and celebrated with numerous concerts. In September 2017, a Carillon Festival featured 12 solo and duo recitals (some in combination with other instruments and a vocalist) and provided live bell music for six acrobatic shows by Australia’s Strange Fruit. The most exciting challenge ahead will be hosting the World Carillon Federation World Congress in 2020, with bell enthusiasts attending from around the globe.

Total weight (especially of the lowest bells) is one way to rank carillons. New York City’s Riverside Church is the heaviest, with 74 bells weighing more than 100 tons. Longwood’s is the 29th largest in North America in terms of weight. But in terms of total bells, only 25 carillons have more bells than Longwood’s 62, usually from two to five more, with two instruments holding the record at 77. This makes Longwood’s the ninth largest in North America and 26th in the world. Not a bad ranking out of about 630 instruments worldwide. So if you’ve never been to the top of that “mysterious place” by the Waterfall, it will next be open on May 20, 2018, after a concert by Lisa Lonie. It’s worth a visit.

Hark how the bells ... Sweet silver bells ... All seem to say ... Throw cares away

—Peter J. Wilhousky, Carol of the Bells, 1936

Categorized Under: