Culture //

The view from up top

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for Sean O’Grady

carillionThe University of Sydney War Memorial Carillon was opened in 1928. There were about 2 000 students enrolled at the University when World War I began. By its end, some 197 students and staff had perished. Discussion of how best to memorialise them was wide and varied. It was the Evening Students Association that suggested the Carillon. Many returned soldiers themselves, they spoke of the carillons they had come to know in Belgium, and thought that they might make a fitting memorial for the dead. One imagines that the clanging of the bells was a pleasant distraction from the shells and gunfire of the front. £15 000 was raised in the space of six months, the modern day equivalent of one million Australian dollars.

To get to the top, you climb the narrow sandstone spiral staircase to the clocktower, passing the intricately carved sandstone gargoyles (a crocodile and a kangaroo). From here you’ll have a 360 degree view that stretches from Botany Bay to the Blue Mountains.

The Carillon has 54 bells. The largest weighs four and a half tonnes. Amy Johansen is the head Carillonist. She is one of nine that regularly play the Sydney Carillon, and one of around twenty in the country. She has been playing the Carillon at Sydney University for about 18 years, before that she was the head organist. The Carillonists have complete creative control over what they play. Only ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Click Go the Shears’ are banned. Staff working in the quadrangle complained that they were played too frequently.

Following the YouTube video of the Carillon playing the theme from Game of Thrones , public interest in the Carillon skyrocketed. The same program also included Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and the theme from Skyfall. According to Amy, everything but hip-hop sounds great on the Carillon.

The view from the Clavier (the room from which the Carillon is played, and from which Amy Johansen, the head carillonist, works) is undoubtedly the best in the university. At night, as you look out over the city, it is breathtaking. I commented that her view was far better than Spence’s, and Amy confirmed that he was jealous. She also divulged that he is wont to walk into the office and push the lever that tolls the largest bell. I was afforded the same pleasure. It was awesome.


The University Carillon is played every Tuesday during Semester from 1-2pm. Additionally there are recitals every Sunday at 2pm. Students can submit requests to Amy at

Filed under: