Exploring the sounds of the Middle Ages

Penn Professor Mary Caldwell teaches a freshman seminar on medieval music.
In a seminar on the sounds of the Middle Ages, taught by music professor Mary Channen Caldwell (second from left), freshmen Oscar Moguel, Su Ly, and Kristen McLaughlin learned about carillon bells in a historic church on Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square.  

The metal spiral stairway hugs the historic stone wall, winding up to one wooden plateau, continuing to another and another until finally reaching the top of the tower, where the bells live. 

Three Penn freshman made their way up those 149 narrow steps, along with their professor, Mary Channen Caldwell, during a field trip this semester to The Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square to learn about the carillon bells.

Penn Professor Mary Caldwell teaches a medieval music seminar.
Guide Edward Weston (left) led student tour up the series of stairs and platforms to the top of the bell tower at The Church of the Holy Trinity.

Their freshman seminar course, “Hearing (in) the Middle Ages,” explores a range of sounds heard throughout the medieval period, whether produced by people, instruments, bells, or animals. 

“Bells are one of the most iconic medieval sounds,” Caldwell says. “When we are talking about the sounds of the Middle Ages, it is important to talk about the voice of bells. The bell was literally the largest and loudest-sounding object.”

Giving the tour was Lisa Lonie, the carillonneur for the church. In a small room directly under the 25 bells at the top of the tower, Lonie worked the keyboard on an organ-like instrument. As she pressed the blonde wooden “batons,” the clappers struck the stationary bells to make them sound. 

“When you play the carillon you have to have the coordination of your hands and feet at the same time,” she said, hitting the batons with the side of her loose fists, while also pressing pedals with her feet. 

Penn Professor Mary Caldwell teaches a medieval music seminar.
Lisa Lonie (right), the carillonneur at Holy Trinity, demonstrated how to play the bells to Caldwell and the three Penn freshmen.  

Each student took a turn at the keyboard, hitting the baton to play a low “D” on a 2,895-pound bell, the deep note reverberating over the square.

“When you play the carillon, someone someplace is always listening,” Lonie said.

“It was really great to see the bells in action,” said freshman Kristen McLaughlin, from Stratum, N.H. “It’s a whole other thing to watch someone play and see the bells in real life to get a better appreciation for them.”

Learning about bells and other music and instruments of the Middle Ages was a main goal for the course, along with learning more about the world outside Penn’s campus. “Philadelphia is a city of bells,” Caldwell said. 

Penn Professor Mary Caldwell teaches a medieval music seminar.
Each Penn student got a chance to sound a carillon bell.

The students also learned about the history of the church dating to 1859, famous as the birthplace of the Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“I walk down this street past this church in Rittenhouse pretty often, and I’ve never noticed the bells. They’ve blended into background,” said freshman Oscar Moguel, from Houston. “Now I will notice the bells of a church and understand what their purpose is and their history.”

Before going on the field trip the students learned from a musicologist about the personification of bells, how they were baptized and given names and spoken of in human terms, the body of the bell, the arm of the bell. 

But bells were not the only instruments the students got to try during the semester. A group that plays music from the 14th-to-16th centuries, Piffaro, demonstrated wind, reed, and percussion instruments, including bagpipes and tambourines and shawms, which are oboe-like woodwinds. 

“Freshman seminars are intended to engage the students with scholarly materials in an in-depth way in small groups and to cover a whole range of topics,” said Caldwell, a specialist in secular and sacred vocal music of the medieval period and the cultural practices around song.  

Penn Professor Mary Caldwell teaches a medieval music seminar.
During a session with Piffaro, a renaissance music group, the Penn students learned about period instruments, including the oboe-like shawm. 

The students also viewed medieval manuscripts, some of the earliest examples of written music, in the Penn LibrariesKislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. The class usually met in the Bodek seminar room of the Albrecht Music Library.

“To me this class is about different interpretations of what music and sound were in the Middle Ages,” said Moguel, who is a marketing and finance major in the Wharton School. “I like that this class is very discussion driven. We get ideas about ideas that were created centuries ago.”

Su Ly, from Philadelphia, is focusing on biology and other science classes anticipating a pre-med focus. “We talked about the interpretation of sounds of certain birds and the nightingale,” he said. “it makes me look at world with a different perspective.”

The first unit of the course was medieval voices, followed by a unit on animal and bird sounds. The bell unit came next, followed by instruments of the period. 

carillon bells

Now Ly said he wants to learn to play an instrument, perhaps the piano, which is possible through Penn’s Music Department for credit. 

“This class opens your mind,” said McLaughlin, a major in risk management at Wharton. “Even if you are set on one path, we are still open to other disciplines. The openness of Penn allows us to integrate our interests with our major, which is great.”

Each student produced a research project, as the freshman seminar also is designed to teach scholarly methodology. McLaughlin focused her research on Easter festivities today and in the Middle Ages, specifically how music was more integrated in the medieval period. Ly’s project was on the sound of drums and bells and horns in war. Moguel researched the embodiment of femininity in medieval song and lyric. 

While in the bell tower at Holy Trinity Church, the students heard songs arranged by Lonie to be played automatically, controlled by a computer, and others played live by her. 

Lonie referenced another song that had become part of Philadelphia’s history, although much more recently. 

“The whole Super Bowl week we had the Eagles pep song ‘Fly Eagles Fly,’ play at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. automatically,” Lonie said. “When they won I came running over here and played ‘We are the Champions.’ ”

Penn Professor Mary Caldwell teaches a medieval music seminar.
Listening to the carillon bells outside the church on Rittenhouse Square (from left) Professor Caldwell and students Moguel, Ly and McLaughlin.