The work was performed in January 1915 at the London Coliseum with Henry Ainley, and at Harrogate on 28 August 1915, with the soprano the Hon. Mrs. Julian Clifford and a military band. The band arrangement was by Percy Fletcher.
History records the reasons why Germany invaded and occupied "neutral" Belgium in August 1914, and the horrific events which followed when Belgium showed armed resistance: cities and people were destroyed, and the country put to almost complete ruin. King Albert and his army resisted but were quickly forced back to West Flanders on the Flemish side of the country. There was much national sympathy: in London, at Christmas, a patriotic anthology called King Albert's Book ("A tribute to the Belgian King and people from representative men and women throughout the world") was organised by Hall Caine with contributions from leading artists, writers and musicians. Elgar was asked to contribute, and he remembered reading in The Observer a poem by Émile Cammaerts. Cammaerts was married to Tita Brand, the daughter of the singer Marie Brema who had sung in the first performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, and Elgar had her immediate approval for the use of the poem.
Elgar's friend and candid biographer, Rosa Burley, recalled:
I ventured to suggest that he should not tie himself to the metre of the words, as he would have to do if the piece were treated as a song or choral item, but that he should provide an illustrative prelude and entr'actes as background music for a recitation of the poem.
Elgar took Miss Burley's advice, and set the poem as narratives and recitatives interspersed with orchestral interludes.
Miss Burley was present at the premiere by Tita Brand at Queen's Hall, and related how it had to be arranged for her state to be hidden from the audience:
...unfortunately Mme Brand-Cammaerts was enceinte and in order to conceal this fact an enormous bank of roses was built on the platform over which her head and shoulders appeared rather in the manner of a Punch and Judy show. Mme Brand put such energy into the performance that both Edward, who was conducting the orchestra, and I, who was sitting in the audience, trembled for the effect on her, but patriotic fervour won the day, and Carillon was performed without mishap.
The version for voice with piano accompaniment was published, with the French words only, in King Albert's Book.
An obvious characteristic of the music is the downward scale of four notes in the bass (B♭, A, G, F), which is a repeated accompaniment (ostinato) through the whole of the introduction before the first words are recited. The work is written in a triple metre. The opening tune is confident and waltz-like, and the accents of the scale motif, like a repeated peal of church bells, never coincide with the natural waltz rhythm: it is the three-pulse of the waltz against the four of the bell motif. When the bell motif is not in the bass it is found elsewhere, high up, having changed places with a brilliant passage of triplets now in the bass. When the music does stop, it is a call for attention to the spoken poem.
Elgar's vigorous waltz-like tune is memorable, is in effect a song without words; and his orchestration perfectly appropriate. Both words and music are powerful, and the work succeeds remarkably by their contrast and support of each other.
The original words are in French, with the English translation by Tita Brand.
The recitation starts after an orchestral introduction.
[la voix seule]
[l'orchestre jusqu'à la fin]|
[with the orchestra]
[with the orchestra]
- Elgar: War Music Richard Pascoe (narrator), Barry Collett (conductor), Rutland Sinfonia
- The CD with the book Oh, My Horses! Elgar and the Great War has many historical recordings including two of Carillon: a 1915 recording with Henry Ainsley (speaker) and an orchestra conducted by Elgar, and a 1975 recording with Alvar Lidell and the Kensington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leslie Head
- Caine, Hall (ed.), King Albert's Book, a Tribute to the Belgian King and People from representative men and women throughout the World (The Daily Telegraph, in conjunction with The Daily Sketch, The Glasgow Herald and Hodder & Stoughton, Christmas 1914) "Sold in aid of the Daily Telegraph Belgian Fund."
- Banfield, Stephen, Sensibility and English Song: Critical studies of the early 20th century (Cambridge University Press, 1985) ISBN 0-521-37944-X
- Burley, Rosa; Frank C. Carruthers (1972). Edward Elgar: the record of a friendship. London: Barrie & Jenkins Ltd. ISBN 0-214-65410-9.
- Kennedy, Michael, Portrait of Elgar (Oxford University Press, 1968) ISBN 0-19-315414-5
- Moore, Jerrold N. “Edward Elgar: a creative life” (Oxford University Press, 1984) ISBN 0-19-315447-1
- Pay Belgium Tribute in Brooklyn concert
- Carlo Liten was born in 1879 in Antwerp, Belgium of a Belgian father and Italian mother. He was a distinguished theatre actor and reciter, at the time well-known in Europe and America. He performed in Elgar's Carillon, Le drapeau belge and Une voix dans le désert. After World War I he acted in three films "The Strongest" (1920), "L'Affaire du train" (1921) and "Les Mystères de Paris" (1922). It was said of him by John Palmer (assistant editor of the London Saturday Review) that Liten "had the most wonderful voice in the memory of any living person ... for resonance, servicableness and charm the most remarkable I have ever heard from any actor. Add to this mastery of gesture and expression dictated by a refined intelligence and we get a rare personality."
- Burley, p 197
- Burley, p 198
- King Albert's Book, pages 84–92
- Foreman, Lewis (ed.),Oh, My Horses! Elgar and the Great War, Elgar Editions, Rickmansworth, 2001 ISBN 0-9537082-3-3