Carillonneurs serenade UNI’s campus

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  • The Guild of UNI Carillonneurs play the 47 uniquely pitched bells inside the campanile. Fundraising in 1968 tripled he number of bells in the tower.


Students play bell instrument atop Campanile

The UNI campanile is an iconic structure on campus. However the campanile does more than keep time – it is a giant musical instrument. A group of carillonneurs, or people who play the bells in the campanile, have a guild on campus of musicians. 

A carillonneur (CARE-uh-lih-ner) is literally defined as “a person who plays the carillon.” It is a very unique and rewarding title according to one member, Ben Thessen, who has been a part of the guild of carillonneurs for about a year and has loved every moment of it.

 A “carillon” described by Thessen is “a fancy name for a bell tower.” However it’s set up slightly differently than a bell tower. Rather than pulling strings to sound the bells, the carillonneurs pull levers. “It allows us to play more complex music,” Thessen said.

The carillon that’s perched atop UNI’s Campanile is actually one of only 166 traditional carillons left in the United States – one of just three in Iowa – and is comprised of 47 uniquely pitched bells. Built in 1926, the first 15 bells of the campanile were all thanks to student and community donations. Then, in 1968, fundraising efforts were done in order to over triple the original number of bells.

So how does one possibly fit inside the campanile? Forty-seven bells along with the levers to play them seems like an unlikely amount of instrument to go in such a small space. Simply put: it’s a pretty tight fit. “The room is very small and pretty much dominated by the instrument,” Thessen said. But what the room lacks in size, he says, is made up for by the view.

Alongside him, there is usually a small number of people who are a part of the guild here at UNI. “We usually have about 10 people, but COVID hit us really hard,” Thessen said, noting that there are only seven people currently in the guild. While they generally perform solo, it’s also worth noting that they also do some duets.

Even though the majority of campus can hear when they perform, it is not uncommon for carillonneurs to perform without ever practicing the music. “Most of what we do up there is actually sight reading,” Thessen said. This means the artists haven’t ever played the music before performing it live.

They play all types of songs at a range of difficulties as well, broadcasting their talents to any in earshot. “We play everything: hymns, classical music, jazz charts, pop tunes, stuff from movies, video game music – just about anything,” he said.