Once, the carillon bells would sound across the town markets of Europe's Low Country, amid the chatter of merchants and the shrieking of farm creatures. Today, thousands of these instruments — a bit like a xylophone but very tall and with many bells — still ring across those lands.
Here in Tennessee, they number only six. But at least one of these will be ringing Sunday when Baylor School graduate and New Jersey math teacher Anton Fleissner descends to St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Ooltewah for an eclectic guest performance, to be consumed on a lawn along with food and tea.
The bell contraption at this church was not always a carillon.
"In 2003, it had 19 bells, so it didn't meet the 23 bell minimum," Chuck Nix, referring to the minimum number of bells stipulated by The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America, said by phone Thursday. "It was officially called a chime and not a carillon."
Nix has run a Chattanooga-area pipe organ business since 1983 and helped manufacture the steel and wood pieces of the initial 19-bell chime. His business partner at Barger & Nix Organs was William Barger, the organist and music director at St. Francis, who Nix said died in June.
If you go
— What: Bells and Afternoon Tea.
— When: 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
— Where: St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church, 7555 Ooltewah-Georgetown Road, Ooltewah.
In 2007, the church wanted to have something on the property with more vertical impact, Nix said, to make it more visible from the road. The church already had the chime bell tower, which Barger had been playing — and the idea for a bigger tower coincided with his desire for a larger instrument. The church raised the tower 20 feet, and Barger and others came up with the money for the additional bells, which now total 27.
Barger served for the next decade as the church carillonist, and his retirement about five years ago left a void. Despite helping build the thing — and staffing the harp and directing the music in the Celtic-inflected evening services — Nix had never played the carillon, and the instrument went fallow into and through the pandemic.
Then Nix gave it a try. He fell in love.
Carillonists play the keys — spaced about 3 inches apart — with their whole hand, pushing at the wrist with a fist. The keys are firmly connected to exposed stainless steel wires that lead up in a single solid link to a given bell clapper. The connection, even when spanning say, 35-4o feet, is extremely taut.
"It's almost like you're handling the clapper with your own hand," Nix said.
Nix went to the annual congress of the Guild of Carillonneurs in 2022 in Chicago. And now he plays special events — the St. Francis animals celebration, for example — but more typically for 15 minutes before and after service every Sunday. He tends to lead into worship with hymns and play out with a more celebratory musical selection.
The carillon, its players insist, has range. It can do it all — from show tunes to classical to baroque.
Fleissner intends Sunday to mix in some American classics with more whimsical fare, such as an adaptation from the Muppets, as well as arrangements native to the carillon that few in the lay public would know. The Beatles may make an appearance as well.
By phone from a train Friday on an early leg of his journey to the Chattanooga area, Fleissner said he has been spoiled by the massive carillon at Princeton University, where he learned to play as he serenaded nearby golfers — whether they liked it or not.
The St. Francis carillon has fewer bells — a discrepancy that will force some careful transcription work. The variability is one of many challenges the carillon poses to its players. The bells, Nix said, can't be damped; once one starts ringing, it keeps on ringing until it fades into the air.
Another of the carillon guild's core determinants of whether something is, in fact, a carillon is that it must not use electric action. Where such a contraption would limit the effect a player could have on the loudness or softness of a note, the hand-played action instrument allows players to strike the bell at a whisper-quiet — "softer than would even be useful because you couldn't even hear it outside the tower," Nix said — or, alternatively, with mighty force.
The carillon is reputed, Nix said, to have a larger dynamic range than any other instrument.
In the spirit of their town market roots, carillon shows are not stodgy affairs, Nix said, but more like a picnic on the lawn. Some people stay quiet. Some have conversations — though these types are advised to find a place of their own in the vast listening field.
Where should one listen from?
"Everybody wants to go to the bottom of the tower," Nix said. "That is the worst place.'"
The best place is 200 feet away, he said, where one can hear the sound bend ethereally in the wind.
The weather Sunday is forecast to be lovely, although not quite optimal for the carillon, which, according to Nix, plays best in misty air.