Riverside Church

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Park Avenue Baptist Church
Riverside Church

9-ton bourdon bell for the Park Avenue Baptist Church
Their majesties, King George V and Queen Mary, inspecting
the world's largest carillon in the Gillett & Johnston foundry
for the Park Avenue Baptist Church, May 12, 1925
20-ton bourdon bell for the Riverside Church

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John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated a 53-bell carillon to the Park Avenue Baptist Church on Park Avenue in New York City in honor of his mother Laura Spelman Rockefeller.  The bells were cast by Gillett & Johnston of Croydon, England and were dedicated by Anton Brees on December 27, 1925. Brees did not have a long tenure working for the church, as he made demands including shutting down traffic on neighboring streets during his concerts and having a private bath.  Despite this, Brees had a long and successful career as a carillonneur in the United States until his death in 1967

Rockefeller had undertaken substantial research before buying the carillon. 

The relocated and enlarged carillon was played for the first time at Riverside Church on December 24, 1930 with recitals given by Kamiel Lefevere.

The carillon was enlarged in 1931 to 72 bells by Gillett and Johnston and two bells from the van Bergen Bell Foundry were added in 1956.

Tim Hurd renovated the carillon from 2000-2004 and 58 bells were recast or replaced by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London.

The Park Avenue church was bought by the Central Presbyterian Church, which installed a 50-bell electro-mechanical carillon in 2020.

1922 "Rockefeller Gives 42 Bells To Park Ave. Baptist Church," The New York Times, December 6, 1922, Page 1.

1925 "Carillon," The New Yorker 1(37):2-3 (October 31, 1925)
The Park Avenue Carillon represents an advance over previous chimes of approximately similar size, for a special attachment of the clapper on each bell makes it possible for the carilloneur to modulate tone volume.  Until now that was impossible.  A note, however often struck, always had the same value, and went on welling into the melody until its last vibrations died off in the dim distance.

1925 "Carillon," Time, 6(14):22 (October 5, 1925)
Park Avenue Baptist Church Carillon.  There is now tawdry arrangement for electrical ringing.

1925 "Carillon," Time, 6(23):18 (December 7, 1925)
Rockefeller Jr. Keep children awake?

1925 "Carillon," Time, 6(25):18 (December 21, 1925)
August Hecksher offers to buy a carillon for the city of New York.

1926 "Reception to Anton Brees," The New Music Review 25(290):50-51 (January 1926)

1926 "Bells and Oil," The New Yorker 2(31):17-18 (September 18, 1926)
If the fifty-three Rockefeller bells of the Park Avenue Baptist Church, the largest of which weighs ten tons, peal a bit timidly into the great chasm of Park Avenue just now, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., is not to Blame.  He did his best.
Last year Mr. Rockefeller imported from Belgium Anton Brees, gay young carilloneur from the Cathedral of Antwerp.  There was something delightful about the artistic whole-heartedness with which the ringer of bells in dreamy, mystic Flanders tackled the mighty city of New York.  His first request was that all traffic on Park Avenue be stopped while he played his chimes.
Now, as everyone knows, there is nothing dreamy or impractical about the church's trustees.  They tend toward steel, oil, and pig iron.  A great city cannot stop its traffic on account of bells, even though they be made of pig iron, they gently explained to Mr. Brees.  Also, would he please play things more familiar to Americans?  Tinkling little airs which ring from the cathedrals of Holland and Belgium mystified the good people of New York.
Mr. Brees vowed he would not change his programs.  Furthermore, he declared he wanted a new apartment of private bath.  He was tired of living in the Y.M.C.A.
"A bath!" exclaimed the trustees of the Park Avenue Baptist Church.
In consternation they summoned Mr. Rockefeller.  The latter was pained.  Wasn't Mr. Brees making five times what he made in Belgium?
Mr. Brees admitted that his was, then added, with Flemish shrewdness, meeting the oil magnate on his own ground, "I've been told I should save half my salary."
"Did you have a bath in Antwerp?" parried Mr. Rockefeller.  And scored too, for Anton Brees did not have one.
All morning they argued; then to his secretary's astonishment, Mr. Rockefeller ordered lunch served them in his office.  Following which they argued all afternoon.
Now the Flemish bell-ringer has gone back to Antwerp, where cathedrals boast Rubenses and baths are unknown.  Percival Price, twenty-one-year-old Canadian, has taken his place.  The new artist's music is as yet a bit timid, but this winter he is being sent abroad to study under Josef Denyn, who for thirty-seven years has played the incomparable seventeenth century Hemony bells which hang in the Cathedral of Malines.

1926 "Baptists Approve $4,000,000 Plans for Fosdick Church," The New York Times, December 27, 1926 Page 1.
Tower to rise 375 feet.  More bells for carillon.

1927 "Ruth Muzzy Conniston Will Play Carillon," Decatur Herald and Review, January 16, 1927, Page 20.
Ruth Muzzy Conniston will replace Percial Price at the carilloneur of the Park Avenue Baptist Church in the recital to be broadcast by WJZ at 6:00 o'clock this evening. Percival Price, who has been heard in all of the concerts of the past as the carilloneur of WJZ's broadcasts; is going abroad to study at the Carillon school at Malines, Belgium, and will be away during the months of January, February and March. Mrs. Conniston is a student of Mr. Price on the carillon and a well known organist in New York city. She will substitute for Mr. Price during his entire leave of absence.

1930 "20-ton Bell Raised in Riverside Church," The New York Times, September 10, 1930, Page 27

1931 The Riverside Church in the City of New York: A Handbook of the Institution and Its Building
Pages 42-43:  The Carillon
From this point the visitor must ascend on foot. He passes the carillonneur’s studio on the twenty-first floor, the machinery and equipment rooms on the twenty-second, and finds himself in the lower stage of the belfry. He mounts the narrow stairs that take him up among the bells to the observation platform, 380 feet above the ground. His impressions here are likely to be unforgettable. Beneath him in three directions stretches the metropolis with its lofty towers rising like a dream to the south. On the west, shining in the light, the Hudson unfolds its impressive vista for miles, bordered on the opposite bank by the lofty Palisades. Beyond lies New Jersey, with its hills and meadows and mountains. This is a different experience from looking out of the windows of a tall office building. Apprehensively, perhaps, the visitor is conscious of being surrounded here by 200,000 pounds of bell metal suspended in mid-air. But there is no need to be apprehensive, for the bells are supported firmly by some of the heaviest steel that has ever been used in construction.
The entire mechanism of the carillon is so delicately adjusted that the carillonneur, playing alone, is able to operate all of the seventy-two bells from his clavier. It is a curious thought that this overpowering mass of metal should be the bronze throat by which the "singing tower" may lift its voice in song.
Originally the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon consisted of 53 bells, installed in the building on Park Avenue. Nineteen new bells were added when the church moved to Riverside Drive, making this carillon not only the largest but the heaviest in the world. The bells range in weight from the twenty-ton Bourdon, which is 123 inches in diameter, to a ten-pound treble bell that is not much larger than an ordinary hand bell.
An inscription around the base of the Bourdon commemorates the fact that “For the first time in history a carillon compass of five octaves is here achieved and exceeded.” The Bourdon rests in a heavy steel frame on the first stage of the belfry and swings by electric motors, as do the next four largest bells. The other bells are stationary and are struck by hammers operated by hand from the clavier, save for the largest of them. So accurate is the balance of the large swinging bells that any one of them may be set in motion by a push of the hand.
It is possible to play the carillon automatically, somewhat like a player piano, but for delicacy of touch and expression the carillonneur must play the bells manually from his cabin in the midst of them. Peals may be rung on the five large bells and certain combinations may be played as chimes from the organ console in the nave. Upon special occasions of mourning the Bourdon tolls alone.
At certain times of the day the carillon plays the Parsifal Quarters, arranged from the Holy Grail motif of Wagner’s opera, and the Bourdon strikes the hours or quarters.

1939 The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon of the Riverside Church, by Kamiel Lefevere and Grace H. Patton.
A brief history of its history structure and use.

1967 Anton Brees (14 Sep 1897 - 5 Mar 1967) grave in Lake Wales, Florida.

2004 "Carillon Riverside Church Rebuilt," by Timothy Hurd, World Carillon Federation

2008 England's Child, The Carillon and the Casting of Big Bells, by Jill Johnston
Pages 41-54:  The Millionaire's Church
Pages 55-68:  On to Riverside

© 2022 Morris A. Pierce