Carillon Music


Suggestions for Composing for Carillon

It is best to compose for the standard carillon of four octaves. It is 49 cast bells, Tenor c, d, d#, e, f chromatic to high c4, with low c# omitted. There are 4 octaves for the hands and 2 octaves for the feet (coupled with the manual). Some carillons have the low B flat like Albany. There are only about 12 carillons in the world that go to the Low G while others have more notes on top. If writing these notes, ossia should be provided for the standard 48 note carillon. There is a 2 octave pedalboard(c-c2). The work should be composed with the traditional mechanical hand-played action. Some European carillons have only 1 1/2 octave pedalboards and many carillons lack the low d#. Compositions for two and three octaves are also welcomed.

Overtones need to be considered when writing for carillon. There is a significant minor third overtone, especially in lower bells. Therefore, major triads in the lower bells should be avoided, however, minor thirds, tritones, minor sixths, and perfect fourths are often used successfully. Some composers use the "Octatonic" scale of alternating whole steps and half-steps. Thick chords are to be used sparingly since there are already many harmonics in the bells. Doubling should be used carefully and usually reserved for higher notes. Since bells are not dampened, rapid changes in harmony can be a problem and a walking bass can at times be muddy. The lower bells ring longer and need to be played slower, the smaller(higher) bells can be played quite fast. For reason of balance, active bass notes against a very high treble line often produce poor effects.

It can be difficult to play rapid passages slowly if extended for long periods. The carillon can produce a large range of dynamics including cresc., dim., accents, etc.

In rapid passages, the carillonneur can usually play only one note at a time in each hand. In slower passages, one can play two notes in each had to a maximum range of a perfect fourth. Tone clusters and chords with the pedal notes are possible. The larger bells (lower notes below middle C) have a longer return time and are heavier to play, thus rapid passages are difficult. It is recommended that no more that 200 notes per minutes be employed in the lower notes. Rapid repeated notes in the lower octave are often not possible on some carillons. Rapid sudden changes in register can be awkward to play. Reaches more than a tenth in the feet and two octaves in the hands can be difficult. Rapid figurations should be written with alternating hands in mind but do not need to be so indicated in the score. It is good to remember that on the bass staff, played by the feet, one can play two separate notes together or even more if the notes are next to each other. Likewise, four notes are easily played together by the hands but more are possible depending on the closeness of the notes. One hand can encompass a fourth on the keyboard. Large chords can be played if rolled and many European composers make extensive use of shakes in the higher notes.

These are useful guidelines but I have seen most of the rules broken to fine effect. Usually the music is scored with the hands playing the treble staff and the feet the bass staff. Performers are used to the lines in the bass staff keeping in mind that pedal notes on this staff can reach the c above middle c. Obviously, 8va should be used for very high passages in the treble staff. There is a very wide range of musical possibilities even with these guidelines. If there are any questions, please contact the undersigned.

Charles Semowich:

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