Rockefeller Memorial Chapel

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Rockefeller Chapel's Carillon

Belfry

The smaller bells of the carillon

Wylie

Wylie Crawford at the carillon keyboard

History

Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon

This carillon, and its sister instrument at Riverside Church in New York City (also named the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon), were the masterworks of the Gillett & Johnston bell foundry of Croydon, England. Carillons of this size had never before been made, and have not been made since that time. The Chicago instrument, comprising 72 bells and 100 tons of bronze, is the single largest musical instrument ever built. Its bells were cast over a three-year period and include a massive 18.5-ton bourdon sounding a low C#. The definitive history of manufacturer Cyril Johnston’s career, including his collaboration with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., has recently been told by Johnston’s daughter, Jill, in “England’s Child.”

This carillon was installed during the summer of 1932, a year after the New York instrument, and was dedicated during Thanksgiving week of that year. The design consultant was Frederick Mayer, organist and choirmaster at West Point (the sister chapel designed by Rockefeller architect Bertram Goodhue), who heralded the improvements Johnston had made on the heels of the more experimental Riverside carillon. Since carefully-tuned carillon bells of this size had never before been created, Mayer took the ground-breaking step of placing the 14 largest bells below the playing cabin so that the sound of these bells would not deafen the performer to the smaller bells. Similarly, he laid out these 58 smaller bells so that the tiniest of them would be directly above the cabin, with the larger ones higher in the tower (this arrangement was changed in the 2006-08 restoration with the audience rather than the carillonneur in mind). He also placed trapdoors in the roof of the cabin, thus providing the carillonneur with a balanced sound. In order to allow the performer to practice without disturbing the neighborhood, a practice instrument with an identical keyboard and pedalboard was installed in the playing cabin, whose keys were attached to metal chimes. Finally, to protect the bells from weather, movable wooden shutters were installed in the openings of the tower.

In the 1960s, under the direction of Daniel Robins, the third University Carillonneur, several changes were made to the installation. First, it was noted that having a practice keyboard in the playing cabin 235 steps up the tower was not an ideal situation. The practice keyboard was therefore disassembled and reassembled in a new space in the lower level of the Chapel, a development for which successive generations of carillon students have been particularly grateful. At the same time, the movable wooden shutters had become warped and immobile, and were replaced by stationary angled louvers. Finally, after three decades of use, many of the soft iron clappers had become flattened from repeatedly striking the harder bronze bells. To remedy this, their flat shanks were turned 180 degrees in order to once again present a round surface to the bell.

By the 1990s, several factors were adversely affecting the instrument. With the passing of another thirty-year period, the clappers were again becoming flattened and turning them 180 degrees back to their original position was pointless. The louvers, while protecting the bells from inclement weather, prevented the sounds of the smallest bells from reaching the ground (higher audio frequencies must have “line of sight” with the listener to be heard). The mechanism connecting the clappers to the playing console used the 1930s-era design that involved heavy connecting rods and counterweights for the largest bells and was unnecessarily bulky when compared to modern linkages and materials (and this mechanism had deteriorated throughout).

A major restoration was undertaken in 2006-08.