A whopping big instrument

As part of the University of Chicago’s Family Weekend just past, I visited the second largest musical instrument ever built. Living as I do in San Diego, home to the biggest outdoor pipe organ in the world, how could I resist?

Rockefeller Chapel, home of the largest instrument ever built

Chicago’s musical whopper is the carillon housed in the university’s Rockefeller Chapel. A carillon is a set of bells in a tower that can be played with a keyboard. Many folks thinks San Diego’s California Tower (in Balboa Park) contains one, as every quarter hour, bells ring out, and the bells play songs at regular intervals. But that’s illusory — a merely electronic carillon consisting of tiny chimes whose sound is magnified and projected through speakers.

One the U Chicago monster bells

The Chicago carillon is the real deal. Its 72 bells weigh around 100 tons (second only to the identically named Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon in New York City’s Riverside Church.) The Chicago carillon’s biggest bell, at 18 and a half tons, is the second largest bell on earth (second only to the NYC carillon’s 20-tonner).  The Chicago carillon’s second largest bell weighs 13 tons — as much as London’s Big Ben. (It’s smallest bell, in contrast, weighs only 10 pounds.)

A dark and creepy passage in the tower

For our tour, master carilloner Wylie Crawford first led us up a spiral of more than 250 steps to enjoy the spendid views at the top of the tower.

Then we followed him to the room housing the carillon’s keyboard, where he entertained us with a clamorous rendition of “Love Story.”

You can listen to him play on the Chicago carillon here.