Canada's First Carilloneur

Still in his early twenties, Frank Price is the pioneer bell ringer of America

MADGE MACBETH October 15 1927

Canada's First Carilloneur

Still in his early twenties, Frank Price is the pioneer bell ringer of America

MADGE MACBETH October 15 1927

Canada's First Carilloneur

Still in his early twenties, Frank Price is the pioneer bell ringer of America


A MAN of mystery is Ottawa's carilloneur. Strange habits and characteristics are ascribed to him. Judging from the misinformation that has been circulated, one is apt to picture him as a white-bearded ancient who lives like a bird—or a bat—among his bells in the Ottawa Peace Tower, an ancient whose diet is so ethereal that it might have been taken from a fairy cook-book, and whose costume—especially during recitals—is practically negligible. On Dominion Day. w hen the carillon sang its message of peace for the first time, a lady in the vast concours*gathered on Parliament Hill, announced that after an hour’s performance, the carilloneu • wraa always prostrate; that he fell fainting to the floor and had to be carried to a convenient, resuscitating shower!

As for the actual playing of the bells, misconception runs the gamut from swinging to the clapper, in the manner of 'curfew-shall-not-ringto-mght,’ to manipulation of a system of electric buttons that respond to an effortless touch.

The truth of all of which is nothing like so strange as its fiction!

A Would-Be Musician at Age of Four

pRANK PERCIVAL PRICE is a Canadian, born in Toronto, and the first professional carilloneur of any nationality outside of Europe and the British Isles. At the ripe age of four, he showed promise of creative genius by picking melodies from a huge square piano, which he somehow associated with great spaciousness . . . with crowds of people . . . with a musician who felt curiously like himself sending music into the air . .

Later, he added piano lessons to his other studies, but merely as one who would acquire a pleasing parlor-trick. At least, such was his parents’ idea.

During a summer in high-school days, he interested himself in architecture—a study which soothed in a measure, the music hunger that tormented his soul, and the gratifying of which was by this time regarded in the home circle as a menace to his education. Price did not know that someone has called architecture ‘frozen music, but he did know a great pleasure in drawing plans and putting them into practical effect. He helped remodel several old houses and build a summer colony on the lake-side. But above all, he was interested—with a boy 3 impracticability, it seemed—in towers and campaniles.

Meanwhile—disregarding the opposition cf his parents —he had begun the study of theory of music with Miss E.

Lois VSilson. who, believing that theory should be taught before practical performance, was not afraid to give it to the masses.

She had heard one of the boy’s imaginative recitals' and became interested in his intent to present a story rather than a melodic sequence of sound.

When she described her ideas of teaching, young Price cried.

“That's what I want! I always knew there was that 3ide to music!’’

It was Miss Wilson whe recognized the quality of his gift and dredged it from opposing distractions.

In Search of Treasure Bent

'"THERE followed three or A four years crowded with adventure, not the least item of which was his setting forth in 3ea.-ch of buried treasure. The youthful Price, who later was to pioneer in bell towers, was never one to baulk at the seemingly impossible and when, still in hi3 ’teens, he heard of hidden wealth in Africa, nothing could stop him from going after i Restlessness, which is

curse of many an artistic temperament, spurred him to undertake the adventures of a trip around the world. He had thought of most places on the globe as a possible objective, but he had not thought of British East Africa . . . until he met the father of an officer who had served there in the campaign against the Germans. Price’s informant was an old man whose concern for the laying up of treasure was not even remotely related to a truckload of currency ‘somewhere in Ukamba.’ He passed on

his son’s secret and a map to Price, who saw himself outclassing Monte Cristo.

It seems that during one stage of the conflict in East Africa the British line was retreating sullenly before the advancing Germans. At the British base, there was a sum of money designed for payment of the troops, quite a sum of money; far too much to be moved in the face of probable capture. Three officers decided to cache it. They decided that if they had to retire suddenly and the territory were taken from them the cache would be safe and they eventually could return and retrieve the silver.

They hid the treasure. They were attacked suddenly and disastrously by the enemy. Two of the officers were wounded and died shortly afterward. The third was badly wounded but managed to reach Canada before he, too, went to his last Great West. The money was reported lost—as undoubtedly it was—and this might have been the end of the story had it not been for Price’s chance meeting with the third officer’s father.

Possessed of the secret and the map, Price was all for hot footing it to Africa. The money was reported lost . . . not a living soul knew of its existence . . . why should he not go to Africa, ostensibly to poke about for bullets or beetles, discover the cache and claim it for his own?

The longer he considered the idea, the more insistently did his conscience urge him toward England. In the end, he worked his way to London and laid siege to Number Ten Downing Street. Ultimately he gained access to this political holy of holies, caught the attention of high officials in political and military circles and delivered up his secret and his map to the British War Office. All this at an age when most boys have scarcely left J off playing marbles!

And the conscience of an institution being less sensitive than that of the young wanderer, his connection with the treasure hunt finished when his full report had been made. Premises ‘to keep him advised’ and hints of reward to come, resulted in nothing. Never a word did Price hear from the War Office nor any of its individuals.

For all he knows the truck-load of wealth may be hidden still. It lies at the curve of a road, ninety-three miles from a town, midway between a blasted palm and a clump of low-lying shrub, near a mound of rock . . .

Buried treasure that was still buried was of no use to Price, however. He had to do something and apparently the War Office intended to do nothing. After months of futile waiting, in consideration of practical benefits the youthful adventurer submitted to the wishes of his parents by entering at King’s College, London, a course in journalism.

Towards the end of the year of lectures, however, fortified by the approval of a maiden whose masculine ideal was embodied in the person of a musician, Price begged permission to develop his true self. His parents capitulated. They buried the spectre that had stalked through their dream —the spectre of a middle-aged music teacher, whacking the grimy knuckles of indifferent school children from four till seven—at sixty cents an hour— and later receiving an adult clientele who desired nothing better than to smear the air with ‘The Melody of Love,’ or to gallop smartly across the keys, calling this exercise ‘Papillons.’ In pursuit of his new objective, young Price had just begun, in Brittany, the study of the French language, when bad news took him home. Circumstances developed that prevented an immediate return to Europe but, determined to continue his musical education, he sought out an organ instructor— ‘a manly organ instructor’—in Continued on page 48

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deference to his mother’s naive requirements. The late Dr. Vogt, of Toronto, rising splendidly to this contingency, arranged a review of all his master organists, and from this group, Mrs. Price selected 240 pounds cf masculinity as a fitting influence upon her son. The influence. although weighty, was not of such a character as to crush friendship which rapidly grew between pupil and master . . . one William Hawke, now of \ew York City.

Aspiring still higher, the pupil stepped on to ait association with Herbert Austin Pricker, as chorister in Mendelssohn and Metropolitan Church Choirs, of Toronto, and as a brilliant student in the study of the organ.

AND now to speak of the carillon, which chronologically, should have been introduced during the period of 'maidenly approval.’ From King’s College. Price had gone holidaying in Holland and Belgium, where he enjoyed the rare privilege of climbing to many a singing tower, and watching some of the world’s most famous carilloneurs at work. There was born in him a great desire to play the bells, but he saw no chance of fulfillment until after his return to Toronto.

The tower of the Metropolitan Church had been silent many years. Then, what might be called a renaissance of carillonry inspired Chester Massey to install a set of bells there, as a memorial to his wife. This was the first truly-tuned carillon to come to the New World; in fact, it was one of the few sets cast throughout a period of about two hundred years.

Percival Price was chosen as the carilloneur.

If it seems incredible that a youth just turned twenty should have been able to handle an almost unfamiliar instrument, it may be pointed out that technically he was well informed of its chief characteristics and difficulties. At the earliest opportunity, he went to Malines, to the only school of carillon instruction in the world. Incidentally, this school supplies free tuition sponsored by the Belgian government and one cannot resist the hope that some day a similar institution may be established in Canada; in Ottawa, perhaps, the home of so many government-sponsored institutions.

On three occasions, young Price continued his studies in Malines, and following the second period, he made himself a practice keyboard equipped with the maximum number of keys so far under the control of one pair of hands and feet. After memorizing on the piano, he acquired facility and accuracy on this keyboard, whese notes give forth no greater volume of sound than a xylophone, but whose tone-production requires, approximately, the same amount of pressure as does the carillon instrument, itself.

IT was through Price’s influence that the Rockefeller bell adviser heard a carillon for the first time, and later John D. Rockefeller was persuaded to install a mammoth set of bells in the Park Avenue, Baptist Church, New York, that surpassed anything of its kind in the world. This set was twice as large as the Metropolitan carillon, being fifty-three bells, the number we have in our Peace Tower.

Accepting an invitation to play on the Rockefeller instrument, Price went to New York and gave a recital, at the close of which he was offered the position of carilloneur, and also an opportunity to make further studies abroad.

From Park Avenue Baptist Church, Mr. Price was invited to the Capital.

There, freed .of European convention, he develops in his original way, the middle and lower register of the carillon in an amazingly wide and varied program. Lacking the vast library of folk-

song with which most European carillon centres are equipped, and realizing that we are less appreciative of religious music than our continental brothers, Price lias to arrange and adapt piano and organ music to the requirements—I was almost going to say, the limitations—of his bells. Furthermore, he gives his audience annotated programs, which is a distinct departure from the practice of other carilloneurs.

To reach his stone eyrie hanging in the Peace Tower, midway between the large and the small bells, one may visit the Memorial Chamber in its silent impressiveness. Then up and up a winding stone stair to a lift, which mounts the rest of the way to the cork-lined box from which the songs of the clouds take their rise.

TUTERE, one finds what looks like a skeleton organ, with wire strings instead of pipes—a bewildering number of them passing through holes in the ceiling. There is a long bench and a keyboard with wooden handles instead of ivory plates, and there are foot pedals. The young carilloneur sits quietly on the bench, his hands (the little fingers of which are wound with adhesive tape) resting lightly on the ‘keys.’

His hair is very black, and inclined to resent discipline. His eyes are blue-gray and far-seeing. They shine with dreams many times, it’s true, but they can focus on a mundane problem with rare penetration for a man of temperament. There is something deceptive about Price’s slow, gentle speech and easy manner. A few moments’ discussion with him proves that determination is amongst his most highly developed qualities . . . not the pig-headedness of an egocentric musician, but the reflective resolution of a practical business man.

During performances, the carilloneur wears a sport costume, flannel trousers and a white open-necked shirt. Concerts usually begin at nine o’clock, and as the great bell calls out the hour and the last note sails away into the cloudy distance, the voice of the carillon fills the night with melody.

There is drama in the moment, truly!

The visitor immediately observes that the method of performance differs from that of the piano or organ. The ‘keys’ are, in reality, handles which, forced downward, throw the clappers against the bells. Throughout the greater part of a concert, these handles are pounded with the fist. Gauging the precise amount of pressure to place upon the keyboard, is not the least of a carilioneur’s problems, for upon this largely depends the tonic accuracy of the bells; and when one learns that 250 pounds pressure is required for the articulation of the largest bell, the rise of that prostration rumor is made apparent. At times, Mr. Price stands quite clear of his bench, and tramples furiously upon the pedals. During no period of his performance, does he give the impression of playing with indolent ease. His back and shoulder muscles must be like steel, for he is a small and almost slender fellow, still in his twenties, very unequally matched, one might say, against ten tons of bell. This is approximately the weight of the giant.

The cork-lined room grows excessively warm and the exercise of playing being violent, the carilloneur refreshes himself with a shower at the close of the concert ... as a tennis player, or a football player, or a track runner or any other person heated by exercise, would do.

In Ottawa, with an ideal situation and an impressive setting—undoubtedly, the finest carillon setting in the world—Mr. Price hopes to develop the bells still farther; to evolve a distinct type of carillon music for Canada—music, which national in character, will take its place beside our other national Arts.