They are the unseen artists of Principia. They are part of the reason we’re reminded every Sunday and Tuesday to prayerfully consider the quiet time before and after Chapel. No, they’re not the readers; they are Rose Whitmore and Carlo van Ulft, Principia’s resident organist and carillonneur, respectively.
Rose Whitmore played the piano before she came to the organ. She discovered the organ while in college at the University of Oregon, and added an organ major to her math major, where she says that there was “a little bit of fitting things together” regarding the relationship between math and music. She was the only organ major at the University of Oregon, and therefore didn’t have colleagues until she began graduate school at Northwestern University. By the time she went to Germany for further graduate study, however, she says that there was a plethora of other organists to work with.
Carlo van Ulft had a similar experience to Whitmore. He discovered the carillon through his work with the organ. He was on track for organ mastery in the Netherlands when the carillonist position at his town opened up unexpectedly, and as an organist, he was the closest thing the town had. Prior to this experience, van Ulft said, “I was actually the same as a lot of people. I didn’t know what a carillon was.” After getting started in his hometown, van Ulft went on to study carillon in Belgium, at one of the only two carillon schools in Europe. Unlike Whitmore, who found a surfeit of organists in her time in Germany, van Ulft says that carillon players are almost as rare as their instruments, of which there are only a few hundred around the world.
Like the younger van Ulft, many students might be unaware of what a carillon actually is. Van Ulft describes it as a piano-type instrument, which uses bells as a sound source where a piano uses strings. The first carillons originated in the European lowlands – places like the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France – where towns needed an alarm system capable of alerting many people of danger or news at the same time. Towns therefore had four bells, each with a different pitch and meaning. Early carillon players – usually monks who had the ability to tell time – eventually became competitive in developing melodies, and it became a matter of pride for a town to have a large carillon with many bells. And thus the practice spread.
Both Whitmore and van Ulft put a lot of thought into the selection of music that they play. Whitmore has experience working in a number of different churches, many of completely different denominations. At each church, she had autonomy over the music that she chose to play, although she often worked with the church’s music director or pastor to find something that fit the theme of the service or the season. The most important factor for Whitmore was what the music contributed holistically to the service. She said, “You don’t want it to be a big glamorous performance, but you want it to be supportive of people’s spiritual growth.” Before each CSO service, Whitmore works with readers and the week’s texts to find musical selections that complement the service itself. Sometimes she can find music that actually was composed with a specific Bible story in mind, sometimes she simply selects music that fits the tone of the service.
Van Ulft chooses his musical selections along thematic lines. The tunes are determined by the season or theme of the service. At Christmas, there are often Christmas carols mixed in with hymn selections during the pre-service chimes. Around this time of year, passerby may hear the “Harry Potter” or “Addams Family” themes.
Although both van Ulft and Whitmore are masters of relatively uncommon instruments, they offer lessons to students in the Principia community. Generally, both Whitmore and van Ulft have at least one student each a semester. Van Ulft in particular suggests the continued practice of the art of the carillon, because it connects you to a very small fellowship of carillon players throughout the world. And an added advantage exists at Principia for students who wish to become a member of that small fellowship. Once a student graduates from the carillon practice room in the basement of Davis, they have the opportunity to play on one of the country’s less than 200 carillons.