“They heard it one time and were hooked,” says George Gregory of those who play the instrument known as a carillon (kerəˌlän,ˈkerələn). He is the organist and carillonneur at Central Christian Church in Downtown San Antonio.
For the uninitiated, George explains that a carillon is an instrument comprised of at least 23 bells located in a tower, controlled by a mechanical apparatus. If there are fewer than 23 bells or keyboards and electronic devices are used, you ain’t got the real deal.
The bells of the Central Christian Carillon ring out as George Gregory plays. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio.
He explains that the carillon originated in Holland and Belgium, the low countries of Europe. Small bells rang out from the church every hour to keep time. More bells were soon added to play tunes counting down the hour. And before long, cities began competing with one another to build ever more complex instruments, giving birth to the modern carillon.
In 1950, a parishioner named Lester Nordan insisted the design of the new building for Central Christian Church include a carillon. Years later his wife, Pearl Nordan, told George Gregory that she didn’t quite know why her husband wanted a carillon, but suspected it came from his days in the low countries of Europe during World War 1.
George descends the staircase of the tower exiting a room of carillonneur memorabilia and church history. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio.
The carillon at Central Christian has 48 bells. The largest weighs over two tons, or the combined weight of two fully-grown Texas Longhorns. It is the only true carillon in San Antonio, and one of only sixteen in Texas. The 48th bell was added after the original 47, and Pearl Nordan dedicated the 48th (the low E) to her late husband Lester. The Nordan family is responsible for the creation of San Antonio’s one and only carillon. George keeps a picture of them near the instrument, not just for himself, but so that future generations will know about their legacy.
George details events in his life in front of a portrait of his former mentor, Ronald Barns. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio.
A woman by the name of Mary Beth Upshaw was the carillon player at Central Christian when George was stationed in San Antonio during his years in the U.S. Army. A friend in the military brought him to a service at Central Christian, where he first heard the carillon- He was hooked.
George had a musical background, starting piano at age 9, progressing to cello, then moving to early musical instruments. He earned a Bachelors in Music from the University of Tulsa and a Masters in Music from the University of Texas at Austin. The carillon was his next adventure. He called Mary begging her to teach him how to play. After a few months, she found the time to train him.
“You’re playing for yourself and God. You’re not playing for anyone down below.”
“It’s a unique instrument,” says George. With a carillon, he says, the player is often alone in a tower, unable to see the audience or get feedback. “You’re playing for yourself and God. You’re not playing for anyone down below.”
While up in the tower, George admits that one of his thoughts is not to mess up. “If you do, you have two tons of wrong note,” he jokes.
George selects some of his favorite sheet music for the carillon from his selection. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio.
George ended up playing a recital to join The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America in 1962. He played in the presence of his future mentor and carillon composer Ronald Barns, who himself played at the National Cathedral in Washington. George has now played at Central Christian for 60 years.
“I can’t imagine Central Christian without George.” says parishioner Mary (Orth) Myers, “He was so patient with all of us kids growing up in that church and never missed a teaching moment. Our family (several generations) was blessed to be recipients of his music ministry.”
"Part of the reason I still play is there's no one to hand the baton off to."
While he feels fortunate to have played all these years and to have impacted so many people. George points out that the legacy is in danger. “Part of the reason I still play,” he says, “is there’s no one to hand the baton off to.”
George plays the pipe organ in the church sanctuary, as he has done for 60 years. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio.
The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America only admits 8-10 people a year, and while technically there’s no requirement to be a member or be certified to play one, George says that too many carillons in the country are already under-served.
“It’s an instrument with a history,” says George. For him, preservation of carillon playing is just as important as the preservation of symphonic music. It’s about legacy and tradition. But who knows? Perhaps there is someone sitting in the congregation or reading this story that will hear the ringing of the bells and become hooked.