Although many tourists come to Rosslyn to visit the nearby Arlington National Cemetery or the iconic U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, probably most do not seek out the adjacent grounds of the Netherlands Carillon. For those of us who live here, this may be a good thing: It means that this beautiful green space that brings us ethereal music is still reserved for the enjoyment of us locals.
On warm summer evenings, there are few experiences in the D.C. area as peaceful as attending a Netherlands Carillon concert. Performances take place from 6-8 p.m. on Saturdays and feature live concerts on the Carillon's 50 bells by some of the most notable carillonneurs in the world.
Most attendees spread out blankets and enjoy picnics; small children can feel free run around and play in the large open area surrounding the Carillon without disturbing others; and pets are welcome. Although there are always many people in attendance, it never feels stressful or overrun.
A gift from the Netherlands symbolizing lasting friendship between the Dutch and the Americans, the Carillon's bells were originally installed in a temporary tower in West Potomac Park in 1954 while a permanent tower was being constructed in Rosslyn. On May 5, 1960, the Carillon was officially dedicated at its permanent home. The date marked the 15th anniversary of the Netherlands' liberation from the Nazis.
Visitors cannot climb to the top of the Carillon as was once possible, but they can still walk around the outside of this enormous structure and read about its history. Even without ascending to the top, the view of the D.C. skyline and monuments is amazing.
Edward Nassor, who is also the cathedral carillonneur at Washington National Cathedral, has been director/carillonneur for the Netherlands Carillon since 1987 when he succeeded his mentor, Frank Law. Law was the original director/carillonneur, and began producing annual summer concerts there in 1963.
In his time as Carillon director, Nassor recalls performing many special concerts: He played the Olympic Fanfare Theme, Bugler's Dream, in the 1980s when children participating in the Special Olympics paraded past the park. Other years, he played during the Marine Corps Marathon as runners approached the finish line (among the pieces he played was the theme from Chariots of Fire). He also recalls playing in 1996 when the Olympic torch relay came through the D.C. area and passed nearby.
These days, Nassor says the mission of the Carillon has shifted away from performance to education. Although he still plays the summer concerts and private groups can still hire the Carillon for special events or weddings, it's more frequently the site of educational programs focusing on this unique instrument and the history of the Netherlands' gift.
Nassor, who has a background in classical piano, says he began learning to play the carillon in 1976. He was a music student at Virginia Commonwealth University and wanted to learn all of the keyboard instruments.
As can been seen in this video of him performing, filmed by NBC 4 Washington, playing the carillon can be a very physical activity. The carillonneur uses his/her hands and feet. If the bells need to be loud, as when playing a song like "The Star Spangled Banner," the performer must have a hard touch, Nassor says.
"I love the carillon because of the unique tone of the bells," he says. "People should come [to our summer concerts] for the view of the Washington, D.C., skyline and the chance to hear a variety of music played by the world's leading carillonneurs."
Related event: Netherlands Carillon Concerts
All photos courtesy of National Park Service