The abbey of Saint-Maurice  

SAINT-MAURICE - On 22 September 2004, a new carillon was inaugurated in the imposing Romanesque tower of the abbey of Saint-Maurice, in the Valais (Switzerland). This instrument comprises forty-five new bells of the Eijsbouts foundry (Netherlands) as well as four older swinging bells. Based on a c#1, the instrument transposes a semitone upwards. Its keyboard is a variant of the "Strauss"-keyboard. To date, the carillon of Saint-Maurice is the largest in Switzerland.

Andreas Friedrich and François Roten   ________________________

The abbey of Saint-Maurice d'Agaune, situated in the Lower-Valais, was founded in AD 515. It owes its origin to the sanctuary raised on the place of the drama of the martyrdom of Maurice and his companions - Theban soldiers killed as witnesses of their faith at the end of the third century AD. After 380, a church was built on the site of the martyrdom, whereas the foundation of the abbey in the year 515 is due to king Sigismond of Burgundy. Since this date, monastic life has never known interruption in this high place of Christianity.

The Romanesque bell-tower of the Abbey dates from the beginning of the eleventh century. It was restored in 1945, following serious damage resulting from the fall of a rock, which was detached from the cliffs dominating the Abbey. Of an almost square plan of 10 meters by 11, and a height of 49 meters, the tower contains eight swinging bells which used to be rung in the traditional Valaisian way, by pulling ropes and chains attached to the clappers. The largest bell is 'Trinitas', offered to the Abbey on the occasion of the great Jubilee of the year 2000. This bourdon of four tons (g#0) was cast in July 1998 by the Paccard foundry in the shipyards of Nantes (France), as a trial for the casting of the millennium bell of more than 30 tons, which now rings in the town of Newport (Kentucky, USA).

In 2001, following the installation of 'Trinitas', a former pupil of the college of the Abbey expressed his interest in the abbey's campanological heritage and made a donation which facilitated the launch of a major project: the installation of a carillon of several octaves.

The spacious tower offered sufficient space for a great carillon, but the first ideas of the carillonneur were relatively modest. He had in mind an instrument of three octaves, based on e1, using all the Dreffet/Treboux swinging bells of 1818. The two heaviest new bells to be bought would thus have weighed 550 kg and 300 kg only. But, as the project developed further, it soon concentrated on a more ambitious instrument that also integrated the swinging bells c#1 (Rüetschi 1947) and 'Trinitas' (g#0).

After an international invitation to tender, the order was placed with the Eijsbouts foundry of Asten for an instrument of four octaves based on c#1, entirely chromatic from d#1, with a g#0 as lower dominant.

This carillon uses only four of the older bells (g#0, c#1, e1 and f#1), supplementing them with forty-five new ones (d#1, f1 and g1 up to c#5) of a total weight of 6,800 kg. Indeed, a detailed analysis of the sound of all the existing bells showed that without a re-tuning, only four of them lent themselves to integration into a new carillon. The four smaller bells were thus doubled, the old ones being used, as up to now, for ringing peals.

So, the carillon of Saint-Maurice now consists of forty-nine bells, with a total weight of approximately 14 tons of bronze, which makes it the largest such instrument in Switzerland.

The new bells were installed in the lower part of the top of the bell-tower, suspended on a new steel framework, just above the oak framework of 1945, which was not modified and is still being used for the swinging bells.

For the moment, the carillon cannot be played automatically, but the possibility of installing such a device was taken into account in the fitting of the bells.

After visits to the carillons of Zutphen, Lochem and Nijmegen (Netherlands) in July 2002, it was decided to choose a keyboard partially confirming to the standard "2000", designed by Richard Strauss, which might become the new international norm.

Since space available between the beams of the belfry of 1945 was too limited to place two complete octaves of pedals, the higher octave stops at the "a". The axis keyboard - pedals corresponds to the North American standard, but considering the relatively limited size of the pedal board in Saint-Maurice, provision of a concave and radial geometry was not considered essential. At the left end, a pedal "g2" is connected to the bourdon 'Trinitas', whereas a "b flat0" pedal was provided for a future enlargement.

The carillon was solemnly blessed on Sunday 20 June 2004 on the square in front of the basilica. The metal parts of the belfry were hoisted by crane the following day and the bells followed on 23 June. The assembly work lasted three weeks and was carried out by a team of four technicians of the Eijsbouts foundry.

On 22 September 2004, on the occasion of the solemnity of Saint-Maurice, patron of the monastery, and his martyred Companions, the instrument was inaugurated, with the participation of Andreas Friedrich, vice-president of the World Carillon Federation, and canon François Roten, organist, choirmaster and carillonneur of the Abbey. On this occasion, many people climbed the 145 steps of the bell-tower, to admire the neat alignment of the 45 new bells.

Lastly, on Sunday 26 September, Dutch master Arie Abbenes played a formal dedication recital, which was broadcast life by Radio Suisse Romande, and music lovers all over the country could note the quality of the new instrument in the bell-tower of the abbey of Agaunum.

After the loss of the great Petit & Fritsen carillon built in 1965/67 for Libingen (subsequently dismantled, reinstalled in Salavaux, transformed into the travelling carillon 'Papageno' and finally sold abroad in 1996), with the instrument in Saint-Maurice, Switzerland again possesses a carillon which not only has a size exceeding three octaves, but which also meets the highest standards as regards the tuning of the bells and the quality of the transmission system.

The first recitals showed that the very large bell-chamber, with its multiple reverberating walls and thus many echoes, creates a calm and soft sound. This instrument therefore lends itself particularly well to the interpretation of Romantic music.

Since the carillon of Saint-Maurice is the property of an institution which is a major centre of sacred music in Switzerland and which should thus be capable of ensuring regular playing by qualified musicians, it can be hoped that it will become the starting point for a new impetus to carillon culture in Switzerland.