GV values Carillon holiday concert tradition

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Hailey Hentz, Staff Writer

As part of their Christmas Eve celebration, spectators gathered to hear music streaming from the Cook Carillon Tower on the Pew Campus. Grand Valley State University carillonneur Julianne Vanden Wyngaard cherishes performing for listeners each year on Christmas Eve from the bell tower.

Due to the winter storm that upended holiday plans for many, Vanden Wyngaard’s performance this year was canceled. Despite the cancellation, she reminisces on previous shows and the importance of the tower at GVSU. 

“I have played a concert every year on December 24 since December 2000,” Vanden Wyngaard said. “I have learned over time that these carillon recitals on Christmas Eve have become an integral part of the holiday celebration for many people in the greater Grand Rapids area.”

The addition of the Cook Carillon Tower in 2000 ushered in the custom of Christmas Eve concerts. Prior to its construction, Grand Rapids residents didn’t have the opportunity to attend bell tower performances.

“We have the only carillons in town, and if folks want to hear music of the season played on bells, our concerts are the only source,” Vanden Wyngaard said. “These concerts are often the only time some of the audience comes to our campus. That is definitely worth the effort.”

Vanden Wyngaard said that while the Christmas Eve concerts have become a tradition, she aims to vary the musical selections each year. The program consists of religious and popular music that encapsulates the festive spirit of the season. 

Vanden Wyngaard played an integral role in the creation of a carillon program at GVSU. She joined the music department faculty in 1965 as a pianist and professor. She continued her musical education by studying carillon at institutions including the Royal Carillon School in the Netherlands.

“I began (the) study of the carillon when I knew one was on the way,” Vanden Wyngaard said. “I am a pianist by training and the transition to the carillon was relatively easy.”

The carillon is played through a wooden keyboard connected to bells, which are struck by a hammer. To reach the playing cabin, a performer at the Cook Carillon Tower must climb 112 steps.

In past years, students were invited to the Cook Carillon Tower on the Allendale campus for tours. Vanden Wyngaard said it is an important student body tradition that she hopes will be started again. 

The Guild of Carillonneurs is an organization of musicians dedicated to the art of carillon. They advocate for the construction of new towers, compose music, and host recitals for performers to grow in their craft.

President Laura Ellis of The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America said carillon concerts are an iconic holiday tradition because of the bell tones often used in seasonal music.

“One often thinks of bells during the holiday season, so concerts are a festive way to ‘ring’ in the holiday,” Ellis said.

Vanden Wyngaard is a member of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. She joined in 1996 and served as its president from 2017-2019. Currently, she is on the board of directors.

“The Guild doesn’t directly sponsor concerts,” Ellis said. “However, the organization does publish and sell music that would be appropriate for these concerts.” 

Ellis encourages college students to explore the skill and history of carillon, emphasizing the importance of university carillon towers and Vanden Wyngaard’s holiday performance.

“If one hears the bells and is interested, reach out to (a) local carillonneur,” Ellis said. “We are always excited to share our love of the instrument.”

More information about carillon can be found on the Guild of Carillonneur’s website or their Instagram @the_gcna.