Do we really need low B-flat off by itself?

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Do we really need low B-flat off by itself?

Postby JohnGouwens on Fri Apr 12, 2013 11:23 pm

First of all, a disclaimer! What follows is not an official statement or position of the GCNA, it is me, offering up my own opinions. - John Gouwens

The early of the development of the carillon art in North America was inevitably tied to the Jef Denyn and the carillon school in Mechelen. Both the Toronto and Gouchester instruments arrived in 1922, the same year that the Mechelen carillon school opened (with a substantial amount of financial help from the US). Many of the early pioneers in North America trained at Mechelen - Percival Price, Kamiel Lefevere, Anton Brees, Frederick Marriott, Sidney Giles, Robert Donnell, Wendell Westcott, Milford Myhre, Kamiel Lefevere, Emile Vendette, Emilien Allard, and Arthur Bigelow. (Not all of the preceding were graduates, but they all studied there.) The following passage is from my upcoming book (from the North American Carillon School), Campanology: A Study of Bells with an Emphasis on the Carillon:

The romanticism of the music of Denyn and his students and successors extended to how they viewed the Mechelen carillon. Despite the very heavy touch and the substantial tuning problems, it was touted as the “best carillon in the world.” The bourdon bell is a low F-sharp of around 17,922 pounds (8,129 kilograms – that was the weight measured at the foundry and confirmed by the city – subsequently, they have falsely but persistenly claimed it is 8,884 kilograms). That bourdon was cast in 1844 by van Aerschot, who was quite unable to tune, and it replaced an earlier Peeter van den Gheyn bell of approximately the same pitch from 1638 which was even worse, in part because it had cracked. It was keyed as a low B-flat, and is sorely out of tune. Nevertheless, it is the grandest sound that carillon can produce, so they used it as often as they could in their music, despite the fact that is was significantly sharp, relative to the rest of the instrument. When Jef Denyn, and later his successor, Staf Nees, consulted on carillon installations elsewhere, if funds or space didn’t allow for a genuine low B-flat, they recommended transposing the instrument higher, so that whatever the lowest pitch happened to be was a “B-flat,” with the entire instrument being pitched high as a result.


In the first place, the Mechelen bourdon sounds dreadful - way out of tune with the rest of the instrument. The romanticism of the music of Denyn and his students and successors extended to how they viewed the Mechelen carillon. Despite the very heavy touch and the substantial tuning problems, it was touted as the “best carillon in the world.” The bourdon bell is a low F-sharp of around 17,922 pounds (8,129 kilograms – that was the weight measured at the foundry and confirmed by the city – subsequently, they have falsely but persistenly claimed it is 8,884 kilograms). That bourdon was cast in 1844 by van Aerschot, who was quite unable to tune, and it replaced an earlier Peeter van den Gheyn bell of approximately the same pitch from 1638 which was even worse, in part because it had cracked. It was keyed as a low B-flat, and is sorely out of tune. Nevertheless, it is the grandest sound that carillon can produce, so they used it as often as they could in their music, despite the fact that is was significantly sharp, relative to the rest of the instrument. When Jef Denyn, and later his successor, Staf Nees, consulted on carillon installations elsewhere, if funds or space didn’t allow for a genuine low B-flat, they recommended transposing the instrument higher, so that whatever the lowest pitch happened to be was a “B-flat,” with the entire instrument being pitched high as a result. So, we see carillons all around the country which are raised to a higher transposition, often higher than concert pitch, in order to "gain" a low B-flat. I'll quote a passage from another section of the book, which is directed toward consulting on a carillon:

If space doesn’t allow for a low c of about 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms), an instrument pitched in a higher transposition is a viable option, but transposing an instrument up so that you gain a “low B-flat” which is actually a “d” or so, is a “cart-before-the-horse” mentality. It trivializes the normal pitch most composers would have in mind to accommodate a niche of repertoire that calls for unusual bass notes. (The B-flat is called for in many compositions from the Mechelen school, though of course one may also transpose those pieces. There are some transposed editions in circulation for many of them.)


Please understand, I'm not a Belgian-basher! I play quite a few pieces of the Mechelen school (not that Bert Gerken ever encouraged me in that direction!), and where the B-flat is essential, I've actually re-edited them myself in Sibelius so I can play them at Culver. (That "trivializes" the music to a pitch of C# rather than B, so that low B is the "B-flat," but without compromising everything else I play there.) But really now, how many North Americans play that music with any regularity? Isn't it really rather silly to have the lowest note be a B-Flat, with no B, and often no low C#? Those of you who play carillons that have the low B-flat, especially carillons that have been transposed higher to arrange for a "B-flat" that is actually a higher note - how often do you use that low B-flat?

I'm confident there will be others who disagree with me. Bring it on! - John Gouwens
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Re: Do we really need low B-flat off by itself?

Postby JohnGouwens on Sat Apr 13, 2013 9:21 pm

It is worth nothing that when the Mechelen instrument was at the height of its influence here (I'm arguing that's from 1927-1957 - loosely) there were only three carillons in North America that had B-flat without the low B and other, lower notes - Scottish Rite Cathedral in Indianapolis (Taylor), Duke University (!932), and Byrd Park in Richmond, VA (1932), all Taylor carillons, and all of which transpose a minor third lower (so Bb is really a G!). I'm probably missing something here. Not sure about Princeton, but since it was 35 bells, it seems unlikely that the lowest note was keyed to Bb, even though it is a G in fact.

Cohasset was 51 bells, keyed as c.d then chromatic to a high e-flat - and transposed down a fourth - low "C" was a G - that was its condition from 1928 until 1990, when it was brought to concert pitch. Having the top note be e-flat is of course also illogical, but Cohasset got to that size, apparently, by being enlarged upwards, then downwards. It started out as 23 bells, then 43 (which with G&J would mean c,d, then chromatic to a high g), then 9 more bells were added to bring it to 51. Now several carillons had extended bass ranges down to G or lower (Bok Tower, University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Riverside Church, Ottawa, and postwar University of Kansas and Niagara Falls.

Of course there were the grand carillons which went down to G or to F, such as Bok Tower, University of Michigan, Riverside Church, etc.

Some older carillons originally had their bourdons keyed to low C, but have since had transposition changes and added trebles to provide a Bb.

First Methodist in Germantown (Philadelphia) and Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills. Michigan were moved to concert pitch, and their Bb bourdons then keyed to Bb. (In both cases, they then had a C# in the bass also. Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania was also in Bb (originally 43 bells), and bells were added and it was brought to concert pitch and some additional chromatics in the bass cast.

Michigan State University,St. Peter's Church in Morristown, New Jersey, and First-Plymouth Congregational in Lincoln, Nebraska were all in C, and they were transposed up so that everything is (I argue) trivialized by being pitched up a step, and "Bb" is really C. Both of those were done in 1990 or later. So I wonder, how often do they use those Bb notes?

Then there are quite a few other carillons that are - and always were - pitched higher than concert pitch for which the bottom bell is keyed to Bb (Gastonia, NC; Berea, KY; doubtless several others).

I have no quarrel with moving an instrument to concert pitch and in the process, keying any lower bells to whatever they actually are. I just believe that we need to shed that old Mechelen mentality of having to have a low Bb. If you think about it - it would have been less expensive if Culver, Germantown, Cranbrook, and Mercersburg had been concert pitch and fully chromatic. It was a different day and age when everybody played music by Jef Denyn and Staf Nees. How many people still do?
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Re: Do we really need low B-flat off by itself?

Postby FrancesNewell on Mon Apr 15, 2013 12:48 am

I just think that a low Bb, a real one below an untransposed low C, would give some tonal "breathing room".
Even my 2 extra treble bells give me a lot more options!
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Re: Do we really need low B-flat off by itself?

Postby JohnGouwens on Mon Apr 15, 2013 2:09 am

Uh, Frances, I just looked up details of your carillon. Your bourdon is a C, so as it stands, your carillon is in concert pitch, now low C#, top note a D. So you would be OK with transposing the whole instrument up a step, so that low C is keyed to B-flat? Well, we certainly don't have to agree here, but there's a whole lot more repertoire that calls for additional high notes than there is calling for low B-flat, and I honestly don't know a single compostion - no, not even one - that calls for a two-octave range with an additional low B-flat. Even in Belgium, they didn't seem to do that. I'm thinking more in terms of the existing repertoire. Have you run across a piece where you needed a low B-flat but could otherwise fit it on two octaves?
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Re: Do we really need low B-flat off by itself?

Postby FrancesNewell on Mon Apr 15, 2013 10:12 am

[b]No, John, and I am not pushing the idea of a low Bb all by itself if Terry McGee can afford more bass bells.
I just love those low bass bells and sometimes feel constricted by being limited tol C.
Transposing does help provide tonal variety.
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Re: Do we really need low B-flat off by itself?

Postby FrancesNewell on Mon Apr 15, 2013 2:51 pm

I would also venture that the reason there is very little repertoire calling for a low Bb is that we composers usually have to write for the bells that we HAVE! I'll bet if there were more low Bbs and other low bass bells, there would be more repertoire calling for them; and NOT just as optional notes!
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Re: Do we really need low B-flat off by itself?

Postby JohnGouwens on Mon Apr 15, 2013 4:33 pm

As I pointed out, there have been a number of carillons with low B-flats in recent years, often transposing up in order to call their bourdon a "Bb." You see this more in Belgium. Oddly, there are also some carillons in The Netherlands that have low G, low Bb, C, D, then chromatic above that. One colleague over there called that a "complete carillon," which of course I think is silly. In some cases, the extra bass notes were older swinging bells rigged to play from the carillon, and actually rather rough-sounding. In a case like that, I think those extra notes can indeed be fun to have available, and you sure wouldn't want one of those crazy swinging bells to be your low C and to get used so often. I put this post in the repertoire section because the question pertains to what you need to play the literature, rather than to define some new standard for new compositions. Historically, B-flat was important to play the music of Jef Denyn, Staf Nees, Leon Henry, and Jef van Hoof. They wrote for what they had available. We also have quite a few works requiring low G (G,A,Bb, B on up chromatically) written by people involved with the University of Kansas and Washington Cathedral (Barnes, Johnson, Pozdro), I'm hoping a few other people will weigh in on this.
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Re: Do we really need low B-flat off by itself?

Postby JohnGouwens on Tue Apr 16, 2013 7:58 pm

OK, I didn't get enough activity here, so I copied this initial premise over to my Facebook Group (Carillonneurs: English Language Only). It's more of a tirade anyway, so it fits my particular track record on Facebook! :)
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