You Can Hear One Of The World’s Largest Instruments In Action This Week — And It’ll Be Festive, Of Course

By Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

HYDE PARK — On Thursday, University of Chicago carillonneur Joey Brink and other student musicians will climb 271 steps in the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel to perform the annual Sleigh Bells concert — offering the public a chance to hear the second largest instrument in the world.

With around 600 carillons worldwide, the University of Chicago instrument at 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave. is second in size only to its sister carillon in New York.

Besides a 2006-2008 restoration, in which 46 of the bells were sent back to Europe, little has changed since the large instrument was installed during the summer of 1932 in the tower that rises high over the chapel.

“A lot of people associate bells with Christmas time and the holiday season,” Brink said. “It’s natural to play holiday music on the carillon.”

The gothic revival chapel that houses the instrument was funded by John D. Rockefeller, with the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon honoring his mother. Relying on mechanical force, fists and feet are used to strike a keyboard that controls the instrument’s bells, although fingers can be used to make chords. The 72 bells range from 10.5 to almost 37,000 pounds. For scale, that’s more than five Liberty Bells.

Housed in churches and other public buildings, carillons were used in Renaissance Europe as communication devices. Only in the past hundred years have they shifted to largely musical instruments. The carillon migrated to the United States during the 20th century, often placed on academic campuses.

Currently, carillons are housed at at least 15 American universities. At most colleges, after completing proper training, students travel up winding staircases to play classic and contemporary tunes, the sound of which can travel upwards of half a mile.

Brink is the university’s sixth carillonneur and began playing over a decade ago while studying engineering at Yale University. He and his wife, an obstetrician, traveled the U.S. and Europe performing carillon duets. Brink has also won awards for his original compositions.

Since joining the University of Chicago in 2015, he has grown the program from between five to 10 students to 20. Currently, he is using his engineering degree to research affordable electronic practice carillon designs students could purchase. He said he likes the resonance of the public instrument and being a DJ for the entire campus. Song requests can even be made through the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel website.

 “I think it’s attractive for young people because they get to play all kinds of music on it, music written for the bells, contemporary music, pop, jazz, film songs,” Brink said. 

Fourth-year public policy major Simone Browne’s main instrument was cello, but she was drawn to the carillon because of the power it holds and the showiness of much carillon music. She said her friends notice when she plays contemporary songs, her favorite being “Pan’s Labyrinth Lullaby” from the 2006 film because it sounds spooky on the bells. While she plans on attending law school, she hopes to be a part-time carillonneur. 

“When people write stuff for the carillon you can tell they have a real passion for the instrument and really understand it,” Browne said. “It’s really fun to write for because you have these crazy big bells on one end of the spectrum and crazy high [sounding] bells on the other.”

At Sleigh Bells, she will perform “Carol of the Bells” with Michael Petruzzelli, who studies history and serves as the president of the university’s Guild of Carillonneurs. Petruzzelli has played piano since kindergarten and likes performing pieces by carillonneur Ronald Barnes.

“I’ve always enjoyed having this community,” Petruzzelli said. “It’s a great way to not do work, to destress, to do something musical and use other parts of your brain.”

Dean of Rockefeller Chapel Elizabeth Davenport wrote in an email that the carillon sets the ambiance for the campus with “recognizable melodies of all kinds of traditions.”

While temperatures will be cold for the Sleigh Bells concert, the sound of bells (and a warm beverage) will surely warm any heart.

“It’s a lovely experience, nostalgic for some, a new thing for others,” wrote Davenport. “Seriously, there’s nothing like standing outside on a freezing Chicago winter evening trying to warm your hands around a cup of hot cider and feeling your breath turn to ice as you sing ‘Frosty the Snowman.'”

When school is in session, carillon recitals occur Monday through Friday at 12 p.m. and 5 p.m., with annual concerts like Sleigh Bells throughout the year. Brink and the Guild of Carillonneurs lead tours Tuesday through Friday with a $5 suggested donation.

The public is encouraged to sing along to secular and Christmas tunes at the free event Thursday, which starts at 5 p.m. at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave.

Published online by Block Club Chicago on December 4, 2018.