Rockefeller Chapel’s Bells of Summer concert series celebrates 50th anniversary

This summer, the Rockefeller Chapel carillon will ring out in celebration of the 50th anniversary of a beloved tradition: the annual carillon concert series Bells of Summer.


Since 1965, visitors have come to Rockefeller Chapel with blankets and picnic baskets in hand to spend a summer afternoon listening to the music of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, the world’s second-heaviest musical instrument. The event features weekly performances from June to August by guest artists from around the world.

“The sound of the carillon permeates our life at the University of Chicago,” said Elizabeth Davenport, dean of Rockefeller Chapel. “We hear it playing as we cross the quadrangles to a class or meeting. We sometimes pause for a moment, trying to identify a familiar melody. But in the summertime, we sit or lie down on the grass for a whole hour, the sensual pleasure of the sound of the bells lulling our minds. It’s an experience of pure joy.”

Bells of Summer is not alone in celebrating an important anniversary this year.

Contempo, Court Theatre, the Smart Museum and the Renaissance Society are celebrating major milestones as part of Artennial, a year of anniversaries in the arts.

The 50th season of the Bells of Summer will bring carillonneurs representing nine countries—Poland, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Russia, France, Canada and the United States—to Chicago. “We wanted to give it a very international flavor,” explained University Carillonneur Wylie Crawford.

Many of these carillonneurs have not played Rockefeller’s instrument since it underwent a major renovation in 2006. During the two-year process, the carillon’s clappers—the metal pieces that strike each bell—were replaced, making the smaller bells more audible. In addition, the linkage between the bells and the pedals used by the performer was replaced in order to make the instrument more responsive. Today, the instrument not only sounds better, but is far more rewarding to play.

Crawford expects the guest carillonneurs will be delighted by what they hear. “Our largest bells are glorious in their sound. They resonate through your whole body,” he said.

The 50th anniversary of Bells of Summer coincides with a personal milestone for Crawford, who plans to retire this fall after 41 years performing on the carillon and 31 years as University Carillonneur.

In his honor, Rockefeller Chapel commissioned an original composition from renowned carillonneur John Gouwens that will debut on Aug. 23. For the new piece, Flourish, Chorale and Toccata, Gouwens challenged himself to use all 72 of the instrument’s bells. “I’m looking forward to hearing [the piece] in its full glory,” Crawford said.

He is looking forward to the selection of the next University Carillonneur—the sixth in the University’s history. “It’s an exciting time for the carillon,” he said.

Bells of Summer runs through Aug. 23. For a full schedule, visit the Rockefeller Chapel website.