Monday, December 8, 2014

Of Carillons None is Greater

We are now firmly in the musical time of the year. We knew that as we attended, thanks to Monique and John’s invitation, “The Annual Advent Choral Concert” at Kirk in the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. This morning we tried to absorb what we’d experienced by looking at the history involved, beginning with the church itself.

The Kirk in the Hills is something of an architectural marvel in the Gothic style—but, and this was a surprise, it was completed in 1958! The Kirk is a Presbyterian church, which led us to trace the history of Presbyterianism. We also discovered that the church’s magnificent tower (built in 1960) houses the world’s largest carillon.

The church’s architect, George D. Mason, modeled the Kirk on Scotland’s famous Melrose Abbey. That place was originally the home of the Cistercians in Scotland, and its construction takes us back to 1136; it is now largely in ruin. Back then Christendom was still a unity.

It is odd in a way that a Cistercian abbey would serve as the inspiration of The Kirk in the Hills—until the thought arises that a continuous tradition links all Christian faiths despite the turbulent chaos of history.

Presbyterianism owes its beginnings to John Calvin. He was born in 1509—which was, curiously in our context, a year before the first ever carillon was built and used in the town hall of Oodenarde, in Flanders. It was played using a keyboard of batons, much as current ones still are; the current ones, however, are aided by electric power.  Calvin’s theological views were carried to the rest of Europe and on to England and Scotland. In Scotland John Knox (1513-1572) continued that tradition and impressed it on the Scottish Reformation. American Presbyterianism owes its beginnings to an immigrant, John Knox Witherspoon (1723-1794) who was also one of our founding fathers; he signed the Declaration of Independence (as a representative from New Jersey).

Now for the carillon. The image I show—because it makes the bells visible—is one from Munich’s Olympiapark. By current definition, a carillon (in German Glockenspiel) must have at least 23 bronze bells connected by levers and wires so that they can be played from a keyboard not unlike that for an organ. The carillon at Kirk of the Hills has 76 such bells in strict and wired coordination—which makes it the largest in the world. The church occupies 40 acres adjacent to Island Lake—suggesting that, for us, attending a summer concert on its green pastures is something we can look forward to. For now, the memories of the Kirk’s quite wonderful choir, performing Handel’s Messiah, was an experience that will last until summer.

All of us, admiring the Kirk, had an odd feeling. It is so very Gothic that you would swear it must be ancient—but the stone is so young and clean and now that a kind of confusion sets in. Until you realize, in retrospect, that a culture that can put a man on the moon should, after all, be able to build a Gothic-style church.
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Image credits: Wikipedia, “Kirk in the Hills,” and “Carillon.”

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