The elephant in the tower: parliamentary bells will play on despite renos


OTTAWA — In less than three months, the centrepiece on Parliament Hill will go dark for at least a decade.

But thanks in part to the lobbying efforts of the official national bell ringer you probably didn’t know we had, the famous carillon that rings out from the Peace Tower will not be silenced when Centre Block renovations start up after Christmas. At least not right away and not for long.

Andrea McCrady, Canada’s Dominion Carillonneur, says she’s been promised that she will continue to play the carillon at least until 2021. It will go silent for a while after that, because like Centre Block itself, the carillon needs a bit of a face lift. But at the absolute latest, she says the carillon will be back in action in time for O Canada to ring out when the Peace Tower marks its 100th anniversary on July 1, 2027.

So, while construction goes on around her, every week day at noon for the next few years McCrady will continue to take an elevator about two-thirds of the way up the Peace Tower to a tiny cell of a room with no windows. It is almost entirely filled by a giant wooden keyboard, with what look like the ends of broom handles as keys that are attached to metal strings.

Each of those strings runs up or down to a clapper inside a bronze bell. When the key is hit — and when you’re playing a bell that weighs more than a elephant this is no delicate task — the clapper strikes the bronze and all around Parliament Hill the bell tolls.

The carillon is one of the biggest instruments in the world and one of the least well known. There are only 11 of them in Canada, just more than 600 worldwide. Europe and North America have the most but there are some in Asia, a few in Africa and another handful in Australia and New Zealand.

Many people wandering around downtown Ottawa hear the bells and think they’re pretty before moving on to the next statue or park. But for a special few, that beauty becomes a passion. This weekend several dozen of those people will descend on Parliament Hill for a two-day symposium to learn about and celebrate this massive instrument.

A carillon must have at least 23 bells. The largest in the world have more than 70 bells.

The Peace Tower carillon has 53 bells, ranging from the smallest, 4.5 kg bronze bell to the Big Daddy, also known as the bourdon, which weighs over 10,000 kg and plays a note four octaves lower.

The people with the skill or interest to play the carillon were usually hooked when they first heard one played. Many days, McCrady takes guests up the tower with her to watch her play in person and most are in awe of the instrument.

“But every once in a while somebody comes up and tugs my sleeve and says, ‘How can I learn to play this?’ and I’m saying, ‘Oh, you’ve caught a case of bell fever and it’s terminal,'” McCrady said.

McCrady, who was a family doctor in Spokane, Wa., before retiring to be a full time musician, was hired on as Canada’s national carillonneur in 2008. At the time, there were no qualified Canadians who applied. With so few carillons in Canada, and only two outside of Ontario, it is not an instrument most people ever come across.

Part of her work has included helping establish education programs to get more Canadians to play. There is now a certificate program in the carillon at Carleton University, as well as a bachelor of music program in which the carillon can be the major. For an hour at a time on Thursday and Friday afternoons, if you pass the Peace Tower and hear some odd notes or starting and stopping in the music, that’s McCrady in her tower room giving a lesson to a student.

Wendy Stokes-Earl, a lifetime musician who spent three decades as a church organist in Smiths Falls, Ont., was bitten by the carillon bug in 2003 when she and her husband were spending a winter in Texas. Although she had heard the Peace Tower carillon, it wasn’t until she heard the blues and gospel songs played on one that her interest was piqued. Then in 2015 she saw McCrady on Rick Mercer’s television show and thought she should give her a call.

She is now a few months away from finishing the two-year certificate program at Carleton.

“When you get to my age, you can do things because they’re fun,” said Stokes-Earl, who is 72.

Minako Uchino, a radiation oncologist from Japan, got the bug during her studies at the University of Toronto in 2009. She was curious and happened upon McCrady sitting at a table at a student expo. She is now a year into her own Carleton program.

“It was my destiny,” Uchino says, as she waits for a turn to practice the real carillon in the Peace Tower.

Wylie Crawford, the past president of the World Carillon Federation, had perhaps one of the best introductions to the bells. He was drawn in by the sound of a concert at the University of Chicago in 1967 but the carillonneur wouldn’t give lessons. Instead, Crawford taught himself to play on a practice carillon in the basement of the university’s chapel.

Crawford’s big debut came when he got a phone call in the middle of the night from the carillonneur who had stayed out too late having fun at the pubs and wasn’t going to make it to play the Sunday morning service.

“That was my first time on the real, live carillon and after that I was totally hooked,” he says. “They couldn’t keep me away after that.”

Crawford is the guest artist for this weekend’s Percival Price Symposium, named after Canada’s first Dominion Carillonneur.

Carillonneur know their craft is somewhat obscure. Gerald Neufeld, a choral conductor in Guelph, Ont., says many people who hear he plays the carillon look at him funny or have no idea what he is talking about. But when he heard the bells in the carillon tower in Stockbridge, Mass., he was hooked.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is magic,'” he remembers. “What a wonderful way to bring music into the community.”

As a carillonneur, Crawford says you’re not just a musician, but also a public relations expert, because most people respond with quizzical looks when a carillonneur mentions what instrument he or she plays.

“We spend half our lives explaining what a carillon is,” says Crawford.

McCrady will play everything from Mozart to hip hop. She sometimes makes her play lists using the theme of a holiday or a composer’s birthday. On the Friday before Thanksgiving, she picked several songs about food, including “A Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins. On Halloween, she intends to play songs from the Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter.

One thing is true no matter what she plays, and is unique to the life of a carillonneur. When you’re up in that tower, tapping away at the bells, your audience has no idea you’re there. In fact, Crawford jokes, he likes to make mistakes sometimes just so his audience knows there is a real person behind those beautiful bells.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press