By Rebecca Murray
Within the sandstone walls of one of Canada’s most iconic buildings, the Centre Block—with its distinctive Peace Tower—on Parliament Hill, there are cultural and architectural treasures that reflect our country’s history and people. One of these treasures is the carillon. According to the Parliament of Canada website, a carillon is a musical instrument “of at least 23 bells that are played from a keyboard-pedal board that permits infinite control of expression through variations of the touch.”
Following a lengthy commissioning and procurement process, the Peace Tower carillon was installed and inaugurated in 1927. This event was part of the 60th anniversary of Confederation, and the ceremony was the first of its kind to be broadcast across Canada, on radio, so that all Canadians could listen to the address and the bells.
If you’re interested in hearing the address and the bells yourself, please consult our film, video and sound database, and search with keyword Carillon, media type Sound and date 1927-07-01. Among the results is ISN 99534 “[Diamond Jubilee of Canadian Confederation: Commemoration Ceremony]”; this is described as including “O Canada and God Save the King played on the Carillon, Victory Tower, Ottawa by Percival Price (Carillonneur), and the message of the Carillon by the Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada.”
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds extensive documentation about the carillon, from the “Tender for Tower Clock and Bells by Gillett & Johnson” dated November 27, 1924 (RG11, vol. 2683, file 1575-96D) to ornate invitations and programs for the inauguration (RG11, vol. 2687, file 1575-96, part HA); the latter is shown below.
LAC holdings also include programs for the carillon’s well-known summer concert series. The program booklet for the summer of 1939 has been digitized (RG11, vol. 2688, file 1575-96, part K) and is shown below.
A wide variety of music was played on the carillon for listeners on Parliament Hill, including hymns, folk songs, modern music, patriotic airs and popular songs. You can see today’s program online (formal recitals are given most weekdays). Why not plan a visit to hear the noon concert if you’re in the National Capital Region?
If you’re interested in other historical summer programs, take a look at RG11, vol. 2688, file 1575-K for the year 1938, and RG11, vol. 2688, file 1575-L for the years 1940, 1941 and 1942.
LAC also holds the private fonds of the first Dominion Carillonneur, Percival Price (MUS 133). The fonds includes sound recordings, textual records and photographs. Two digitized finding aids are available through the fonds-level description to provide access to file-level descriptions for the items. There are no access restrictions on the material in this fonds.
The carillon is one of the many treasures on Parliament Hill. I hope you have the opportunity to explore some of them during your summertime travels. If you’re not coming to Ottawa this summer, you could take a tour of your local legislative assembly and learn about the traditions and treasures of your home province!
Rebecca Murray is a reference archivist in the Reference Services Division.