On Christmas Eve, “Silent Night” and other holiday hymns will ring from the Williams Tower at the University of Denver (DU) as part of a global recital in honor of the World War I Christmas Truce.
The 100th anniversary event commemorates the famous 1914 ceasefire in Mesen, Belgium, where soldiers on both sides of the trenches stopped fighting for a short time to celebrate the holiday by singing and exchanging goods.
“They came out and sang Christmas carols and had a lovely night of rejoicing in peace,” DU adjunct instructor and carillon player Carol Jickling Lens says. “They’re not positive ‘Silent Night’ was the first song sung, but it has become the one that’s most associated with the truce.”
Lens will participate in the worldwide event along with carillon players from such countries as France, Norway, Canada and Australia. The concerts will begin when the clock strikes 19:14 military time (7:14 p.m.) in each performer’s respective time zone.
Inside the 215-foot-tall Williams Tower, 95 stairs spiral up to DU’s carillon. Located underneath the tower's gold spire, the instrument has 65 cast-bronze bells, the largest of which weighs six tons. It was made in Holland.
Carillonneurs use their closed fists to press a set of batons -- wooden keys that resemble broom handles -- arranged in the same way as keys on a piano. Players also use foot pedals located under the keyboard, and in this way, the instrument resembles a church organ.
When struck, the batons and foot pedals pull on wires connected to clappers, which ring the bells above.
Lens started playing the carillon at age 13. She later performed while attending the University of Michigan and went on to earn two performance diplomas from the Netherlands Carillon School.
“I was bewitched by the carillon,” Lens says. “I find it very expressive, and to be outside -- especially if it’s cold and snowing -- and to hear Christmas carols coming from the tower, it just adds to the atmosphere and the season.”
While Colorado is home to other carillons, Lens says most use a nontraditional electronic keyboard. That includes the one located inside Denver’s City and County Building, which will also play “Silent Night” on Wednesday at 7:14 p.m. in honor of the World War I Christmas Truce.