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Image of a tall black bell tower in front of a blue sky and trees with flowers around the base.
Carillon at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. Carol M. Highsmith. [between 1980 and 2006]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The History of the Netherlands Carillon

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One of my favorite spots for viewing the Washington, D.C. skyline is just across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, where the Netherlands Carillon sits on a hill that overlooks the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the U.S. Capitol, among other D.C. landmarks. The carillon is a short distance from the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery and the Marine Corps War Memorial and it is worth visiting during a trip to Arlington. My own experiences visiting this carillon piqued my interest in exploring the carillon’s history.

View of the Washington, D.C. skyline with the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Capitol.
View of the Washington, D.C. skyline from the grounds of the Netherlands Carillon. Photo by Sarah Friedman.

A carillon “is a musical instrument composed of at least 23 carillon bells, arranged in chromatic sequence, so tuned as to produce concordant harmony when many bells are sounded together.” The bells are typically installed at the top of a tower and connected to a keyboard in a room below. The smaller bells are connected to a keyboard that is played by hand and the larger bells are often operated by foot pedal. Some carillons are also operated by electric mechanisms.

The Netherlands Carillon is made up of 53 bronze alloy bells that range in size from eight inches to six feet and nine inches wide. The tower stands 127 feet high, with the playing cabin located 83 feet above the ground. Two bronze lions sit at the base of the carillon and a tulip library, planted in 1970, blooms each spring on the surrounding grounds.

The Netherlands gifted the carillon to the United States to express gratitude for America’s aid to the Dutch people during and after World War II. In 1952, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands visited the United States to present a small silver bell to President Harry S. Truman during a ceremony in Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C. The Netherlands delivered 49 bells to the United States in 1954 and they were temporarily installed in West Potomac Park until the tower, also gifted from the Netherlands, was constructed. After the bells were installed in the completed tower, the carillon was officially dedicated on May 5, 1960. In an exchange of messages with Queen Juliana, President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized that the carillon was dedicated and held its first recital on the 15th anniversary of the Netherlands’ liberation from the Nazis.

Photo of a tall black bell tower against the blue sky surrounded by red tulips.
The Netherlands Carillon in the spring, when the tulips are in bloom. Photo by Sarah Friedman.

On several occasions, the carillon fell into disrepair or disuse. In 1963, it was noted that the Netherlands Carillon, which had only been completed and dedicated a few years prior, was played infrequently and funds were sought for weekly concerts (109 Cong. Rec. 25658 (1963)). From the 1970s through the 1990s, the carillon fell into periods of disrepair until a rehabilitation project was initiated in 1994 to prepare for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Netherlands’ liberation from Nazi Germany in 1995.

After falling into disrepair once again, the carillon underwent a 2-year restoration project and was rededicated on May 5, 2022. As a part of the rehabilitation, the Netherlands Embassy contributed three new bells, making it a “grand carillon” with 53 bells. The three new bells were named in honor of General George C. Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Now that the recently restored carillon is in use again, guest carillonneurs occasionally give free live performances, and automated concerts and chimes are played daily.

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