The sounds of heaven

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Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

‘Time in the Netherlands sings,” wrote the Italian Edmondo De Amicis in 1874 in his book “Olanda,” referring to the sounds of the omnipresent carillons that accompanied him on his journey through Holland.

Princeton has its own version. At regular times, the fourth University Carilloneur, Lisa J. Lonie, climbs the 197 stairs of the Collegiate Gothic Cleveland Tower and starts to pound 20 tons of bronze bells with her fists and feet. A tsunami of sound pours out over the quiet town. Closing windows and doors makes no sense. Everyone in the widest range of earshot is recruited into her audience.

To quote Bertus Aafjes: “The whole sky is saturated with sound in an instant. It grumbles, it thunders, it hails, it clatters and suddenly there is another burst of sound.” The firmament is played, nothing less. Think of music as an atmospheric phenomenon.

Rhapsodic is not the first word that comes to mind when you think about the carillon. It is above all a firm message sent to the heavens, loud and clear. God created man puny and mortal, but man responds with timeless compositions that even the Creator does not imagine. And with the volume knob set on 10. Like an ecstatic puppeteer, the carilloneur pulls the strings that animate the sounds of the heavens.

The carillon tower is close to our house, part of the university’s picturesque graduate college that is rich with Harry Potteresque trappings. The PhD students are housed here, at a suitable distance from the undergraduates. In this pastoral environment they can focus on their dissertations, free of distractions. Except from the carillon, which is silent only at examination time.

Bell towers have run like a heartbeat through my own life. On the market square in my Dutch home town, Roermond, the carillon sounded above the shouts of the merchants. At the top of the Dom Tower in Utrecht I gave my college graduation party, when the guests held their hands as the bells rang. In Amsterdam I lay in my bed at night and tried to distinguish the sounds and melodies of the different churches and the Royal Palace on Dam Square.

For a while we lived in the neighborhood near the very loud Western Church. Our neighbor, who, incidentally, did not shy away from using his power saw for hours on Sunday mornings, was so annoyed by the bells that he started a petition to silence the carillon. Shouldn’t the clock care if people wanted to sleep? The reaction was predictable. When you arrive at the Western, you arrive at the church that Anne Frank heard and wrote about. His movement failed.

The carillon in Princeton also has a loyal fan base. During the warmest concert season, people from all over the world come to listen every Sunday. They sit in the grass on their quilts or bring their own folding chairs. They all look up at the confident tower from which both Bach and the Beatles sound.

There is, how could it be otherwise, a clear Dutch touch to this American carillon. A clock has been cast in Aarle-Rixtel. It is not uncommon for a guest carilloneur from the Netherlands to visit and play. And recently Princeton’s Lisa Lonie played the carillon in my home town of Roermond. In my imagination, I could hear the bells ringing out over the ocean. The firmament carries far.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at piadejong.com.