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Merle Robillard

The ringmaster

Sixteen years ago, Gerald Martindale fell under the spell of the carillon. His passion still peals out over the country’s largest city.

By Jennifer McPhee

Carillonneur Gerald Martindale climbs the narrow spiral staircase leading to the top of the bell tower at Metropolitan United in Toronto. The 100 steps are frighteningly tiny and old. “As far as I know, this is the original staircase from 1872,” Martindale calls out cheerfully. At the top of the stairs is a small room with an instrument that resembles a piano. But instead of delicate black and white keys, the carillon keyboard has two rows of large wooden pegs called batons.

Martindale slips on a pair of narrow black shoes and walks over to the ladder at one end of the room. He climbs the ladder and cracks open a small, hatched door that leads to 54 bells in the chamber above, “so I can hear myself play,” he explains. Next, he sits down in front of the keyboard and begins. He stares straight at the sheet music while frantically striking the batons with closed fists and working the pedals with his feet. “As you can see, it’s quite a workout,” he says.

Martindale is a rare breed — possibly even an endangered species. Just 11 carillons and fewer than 20 carillonneurs exist in Canada. No new carillons have been built in this country for many years, and two of Canada’s existing carillons are out of commission. One stopped working because of poor maintenance, and another, located in Niagara Falls, Ont., was shut down after 9-11 because of security concerns. Metropolitan United is home to the first tuned-bell carillon in North America — and the only carillon in a United Church.

About 16 years ago, Martindale fell under the carillon’s spell after watching Metropolitan United’s former carillonneur give a demonstration. He then took lessons for five years before landing his current part-time position at Metropolitan United in 1997. Martindale now plays before Sunday morning services and on weekday afternoons, and spends the rest of his workweek giving private music lessons and working as an extra in television and movie productions.

Unlike other professional musicians, carillonneurs don’t see their audience. “You have no idea how many people are listening and how they are reacting to the music,” says Martindale. “I would prefer to see the audience.” However, the curious often track him down. Almost every day, tourists hear his music while walking past the downtown church and decide to ascend the tower. Most expect to find someone ringing the bells with ropes or discover a machine playing the bells. Instead, they get to watch Martindale in action and learn how the carillon works. He asks all visitors to sign his guestbook. “Amazing, thank you very much,” writes the last visitor, from Dubai.

Martindale leads the way past the small, hatched door into the bell chamber. Climbing into this dimly lit and dusty space feels like an experience straight out of a Harry Potter novel. The once-sparkling bronze bells are now a blackish-brown colour because of dust, dirt and pollution. But it’s still possible to make out the inscription on the largest bell: “May the spirit of the Lord reach the heart of every one where the sound of these bells is heard.”

The largest bell in the room weighs 8,456 pounds and is about six feet high by six feet wide. The smallest bell weighs roughly 20 pounds. Each bell is tuned to produce a specific note on the musical scale. When Martindale strikes a baton or presses a pedal on the keyboard, the motion causes the clapper hanging inside the corresponding bell to strike. The clapper moves, but the bell remains stationary. Like the piano, the carillon’s mechanical playing action allows the carillonneur to play with expression by changing the way he or she strikes the keys.

It takes more effort to press the keys linked to the largest bells because the cast-iron clappers are so heavy. For this reason, carillonneurs ring the lowest notes with pedals. Martindale rarely plays Metropolitan’s instrument for more than an hour because it has such a heavy touch. “All carillons have different touches,” he says. “Some are very tiring. Others are light as a breeze and you could play for hours.”

Carillons evolved in the lowlands of Holland, Belgium and northern France in the early 1600s. “Originally, they installed a few bells in towers to tell time, to warn the community of war, to celebrate times of peace or announce important events,” says Martindale. “Then they discovered if they added a few more bells, they could actually play tunes.”

By definition, a carillon must have at least 23 bells — any fewer and the instrument is considered a chime. In 1822, wealthy Torontonian Chester D. Massey (of Massey Hall fame) donated Metropolitan United’s first 23 bells in memory of his wife, who found comfort in the sound of ringing bells during her final days. The remaining 31 bells — all donated by 1971 — increased the instrument’s range to more than four octaves.

These days, however, very few people who hear the sound of the bells know anything about this unusual, expensive instrument (a new 50-bell carillon costs about $1 million). That’s the main reason why no new carillons have popped up in Canada for decades, although St. George’s Anglican Church in Guelph, Ont., recently celebrated its 175th anniversary by adding 23 more bells to its instrument.

 “Funding for carillons is usually provided by wealthy donors,” explains Martindale. “But if they don’t know anything about a carillon, they are not going to give money to it.”

The good news is that with proper maintenance, Canada’s existing carillons will survive for centuries. In Europe, some carillons that were built in the 1600s are still played today.

Despite the static carillon landscape in Canada, no one seems to think carillonning is a dying art form. Dennis Curry, president of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America, says the organization’s membership grows every year along with the number of carillons in the United States. The guild even throws a carillonneurs’ convention every year. “[Carillonning] is very vibrant in the U.S.,” says Curry. “It could maybe use a little more enthusiasm in Canada.”

No one, however, could accuse Martindale of lacking enthusiasm. Not only does Martindale attend those conventions, but he also regularly tours Europe and the United States performing guest carillon concerts. He has seen almost every type of carillon imaginable. Several years ago, he played from the bell tower of the Crystal Cathedral in California, which has no stairs or elevator. “You ascend the tower from a platform like a window-washer’s platform,” he says. “You are up there in the open air. You go up about 100 feet, and then the technician who rides up with you has to swing the platform into the tower. It’s scary.”

And, last summer, Martindale performed a concert in France. It had such an unusually short bell tower that he could finally see his audience and hear them applauding. “That was very rewarding,” he says. 

Jennifer McPhee is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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