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“Hear Them Ring”

Princeton University Carillonneur Lisa Lonie

By Donald H. Sanborn III

“Above all the bustle you’ll hear silver bells,” write Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in their ubiquitous holiday song. Above all the bustle of the Princeton University campus, you’ll hear the carillon bells that are housed in Cleveland Tower at the Graduate College. At the helm is Lisa Lonie, University carillonneur, who will perform holiday favorites December 5-26.

Asked whether “Silver Bells” will be among the selections, Lonie grins and replies in the affirmative. Other likely selections include “Carol of the Bells,” along with “Santa Baby” — which Lonie describes as a “fun, jazzy piece” — and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

“Holidays are synonymous with ringing bells,” Lonie observes, though she also says, “I’m playing music all year round. During the academic year I perform, rain or shine, every Sunday at 1 p.m., except during Ph.D. exams. And it’s always free! During July and August, into Labor Day weekend, we host the summer carillon concert series. That’s when the visiting carillonneurs from all over the world come and play.”

Lonie adds that the participation of guest performers is helpful in providing “a lot of diversity — people don’t always have to listen to me!”

Lonie presented a Halloween concert on October 31. “I reached out to the student body at the Graduate College, because they hear the bells all the time, and I asked them for their ideas,” Lonie says. “I’ll Put a Spell on You” (from Hocus Pocus) was among the suggestions.”

For November, “the lull time between Halloween and the holidays,” Lonie describes an initiative to “focus on musical diversity. The incoming class at the Graduate College is the most diversified class ever. I want to dovetail on this and perform pieces that they might hear at home, but not necessarily hear in the U.S. For example, based on a suggestion from a grad student, I’m working on an insanely popular piece of music from India. Asian music is popular — China, Singapore, Taiwan. That series is called ‘Music that Reminds You of Home.’”

Lonie emphasizes that when she chooses repertoire to play on the University’s carillon, “It’s not about what I want to play; it’s what people want to hear. I try to mix it up a lot.”

Although Lonie also is the carillonneur at St. Thomas’ Church in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, and at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, she notes that the repertoire she plays on the University’s carillon is secular. Having established that parameter, Lonie invites song requests for the holiday program, and says, “I’m open to catchy titles!”

Princeton University Carillonneur Lisa Lonie. (Photo by Andrea Hillman)

From Handbells to Carillons

“As a teenager I played in a handbell choir at my church,” Lonie says when asked what interested her in playing the carillon. “The director was a carillonneur from Valley Forge. He took us up into the tower, sat down, and played this enormous instrument of big bells. That night, I came home to my mother and said, ‘I don’t want to ring these little bells anymore!’”

Lonie attended college at Penn State, which does not have a carillon. But she stayed in form by performing during trips home for holidays.

“After college, when I really came home (to Bucks County), I didn’t have any job prospects. But the church where I was practicing had an opening for a part-time carillonneur,” she says.

Lonie was offered a 90-day trial. “I said, ‘sure,’ and I stayed there for 19 years. Then I took a position at St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh — I’ve been there since 1999 — and at the Church of the Holy Trinity since 2008.”

In 2012 Lonie became Princeton University’s first female carillonneur. She explains that R. Robin Austin, the carillonneur at the time, “who’s a close friend of mine, had resigned to take a full-time carillon position out in Illinois. That left the position in Princeton open. I interviewed and auditioned. I played a recital in the summer series; that could have been my audition and I didn’t know it!” Lonie started at Princeton in September of that year.

She says, “That’s my journey. I’m still taking lessons, just like any good musician should — it’s lifelong learning. I’m challenging myself to learn new repertoire. Certainly the student body and listeners from the community of Princeton are challenging me to learn and research new repertoire. It’s really a lot of fun; it keeps me engaged.”

Some of the original bells that form Princeton University’s carillon. (Photo by Jill Feldman, Princeton University Office of Communications)

A Noble Gift

The carillon’s page on Princeton University’s website notes, “In 1926, the Class of 1892 began searching for a gift to the University in honor of its 35th reunion. One class member suggested giving a carillon, like the ones heard in the Low Countries of Europe. The instrument, he asserted, was a fitting choice, ‘at once noble yet different from all other gifts.’”

“In the Roaring Twenties, people had a lot of money to spend,” Lonie observes. “The class president had been to Europe, and heard the bells in Belgium or Holland. In those countries you hear the hour strike ‘sing.’ He wanted to bring that concept to the Princeton community, so they ordered the carillon.”

The University’s website notes, “Gillett & Johnston was selected as the foundry and a representative from the Class traveled to England to witness the casting of the bourdon.”

“The urban legend is that they paid for it, it was on the boat — and then they decided to tell the University’s Board of Trustees what they had done,” Lonie says. “The bells were originally intended for Holder Hall (Sage Tower), on Nassau Street. But that tower was deemed to be too small, and not strong enough, to hold the bells.”

Instead, Grover Cleveland Tower, standing 173 feet to the roof, became the (then 35-bell) carillon’s home; the instrument was installed in the spring of 1927. Anton Brees, later carillonneur at Bok Tower in Florida, played the dedication recital on June 17 of that year.

The website credits Professor Arthur Bigelow, the carillonneur from 1941 until his death in 1967, with “adding 14 new bells of his own design and casting. In 1966, he made plans to remove seven of the original 35 bells, as well as his 14 bells, and designed a totally re-scaled treble register of 42 bells cast by the French Foundry Paccard.”

After Bigelow’s death, the instrument fell into disrepair. In the 1990s, the carillon was renovated by the Verdin company. At this point it was converted into concert pitch, eliminating the need for the carillonneur to transpose when performing with other musicians. On June 13, 1993, Austin played the rededication recital, which featured the premiere of Ronald Barnes’ Capriccio 3 for Carillon, which the University commissioned.

“When you go up into the tower, you see the lower bells from 1927; they look old,” says Lonie. “Everything else, in terms of the infrastructure, is stainless steel and new. I have bells above me, and I have some of the lowest bells underneath me.”

Lonie adds that the University’s carillon is “the fifth largest (in North America, including Canada) in terms of the number of bells. We’re proud of that!”

Cleveland Tower, home of Princeton University’s carillon. (Photo by Lisa Lonie)

A Visit to Cleveland Tower

Lonie recently invited this writer to tour Cleveland Tower and watch her perform. After climbing a winding, narrow staircase, one looks down on a large room that contains a statue of Grover Cleveland. The statue’s pedestal sports the Hawaiian American flag. A supporter of Hawaiian sovereignty, “Cleveland supported their Queen (Lili’uokalani) during an attempted coup,” Lonie explains. “When the Hawaiian Americans visit, I always look forward to playing the familiar ‘Aloha Oe’ which Queen Lili’uokalani composed.”

In a nearby empty room, Lonie points to a set of wires that follow the wall up through a hole in the ceiling. She explains that the carillon was originally played “from right around here. You can see where the transmission wires would run about a story or two up into the belfry. In 1927 this is where the console was.”

She muses that the carillon is an instrument that is “complex in its simplicity. The bells don’t go out of tune for hundreds of years, certainly not in our lifetime, and it’s just controlled with wires, levers, batons, and foot pedals.”

Another flight of stairs leads to the belfry. “The newest bell, from 1992, was cast when they renovated the instrument,” Lonie says. “If you look, you’ll notice that the clapper is not in the middle of the bell, but rather hung off center and only about an inch or two from the lip of the bells. The bells are hung dead or secured to the beam. They don’t swing and there is no electronic or pneumatic help to move the clappers. It’s a completely manual operation.”

The Princeton University website notes that the “largest bell, the bourdon sounding G2, weighs 12,880 pounds,” while the “smallest bell weighs 14 pounds.”

Arriving in the room with the current console, one looks at the yellow wall and sees framed sheet music — including a piece titled “Cleveland Prelude” — as well as a list of all the University’s carillonneurs.

“I like having things to remind me of my predecessors, and the musical legacy of the bells,” Lonie says. She sits at the long wooden console. A small stuffed tiger rests at the left of the music stand.
On the console the batons resemble piano keys, but Lonie explains that the “keys on a piano are weighted the same. On a carillon they’re not.” The heavier the bell or clapper, the harder the performer has to move the baton. Indicating the console, Lonie adds that, although most pianos have 88 keys, on a carillon the length of the console “depends on how many bells you have.”

At 1 p.m., Lonie starts a performance. “I always open with ‘Old Nassau,’” she says.

Looking intently at the music, she strikes the batons with her fists; her arms and legs move back and forth across the console with apparent ease. The second selection is “Springfield Counterpoints” (“Prelude, Nocturne, and Fugue”) by John Knox. Then, after checking the window for confirmation that she has some listeners below, she moves on to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”

Then she turns and smiles. “All right, ready to try a bell?” she asks, giving this writer a rare opportunity. “Take a gander at the lowest one.” Gesturing toward the leftmost baton on the console, she invites me to ring the heaviest bell.

On the first, too-gentle try, no sound emerges. But a second, more forceful, attempt yields a low, dignified “bong.” Lonie directs me to the other side of the console, and lets me try the smallest bell. I hit it once; this time I get a sound immediately. I hit it once more before standing back. Returning to the console, Lonie says, “There you go!”

When Lonie teaches lessons at the University, she has the students start on a practice console. “It rings tone bars, with hand bell clappers. That’s where the lessons are held, in my basement office at the Graduate College,” she explains.

She points out that on a carillon “you can’t dampen the sound. If you hit a wrong note, you can’t simply lift your finger and say, ‘Maybe nobody heard that!’ When I and the student feel comfortable that they can hold their own, then they’re ready for the main instrument in the tower.”

Thanks to the endowment of the Class of 1892, lessons are free. They are open to both the University and Princeton community.

Lonie adds, “We have a process of certification within the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. You go through a two-stage process of testing and adjudication to earn the title of “carillonneur.” That’s important to understand and appreciate, because you’re playing a very public, community-centric instrument.”

Lisa Lonie poses within the tower. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Lonie) 

A ”Great Asset”

“The carillon is not a dead instrument; playing the carillon is not a dying art,” Lonie says, when asked what she particularly would like readers to know. “Two or three instruments are being installed in North America per year. They can be found on school campuses and in churches, botanical gardens, municipal parks — even on private estates.”

“Being out in the Graduate College is beautiful,” she adds. “You have the golf course and trees; it’s very serene. There are not a lot of buildings, so we’re not sucked in. That’s the good thing. But on the other hand, even that short ten-minute walk from the center of campus — you might as well be in the next county.”

Lonie’s focus is on “continuing to build an audience for the whole year round.” She wants listeners to enjoy “not only what I’m doing, but what the students are doing — the students who are learning to play this great asset to the University and surrounding community.”

For more information, or to send suggestions for musical selections to Lisa Lonie, visit

The console of Princeton University’s carillon. (Photo by Jill Feldman, Princeton University Office of Communications)

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