The Royal Convent of Mafra has a set of two carillons, or rather a series of bells tuned to each other. There are actually ninety eight bells in all, which makes them the world’s largest historic carillons.
The bell towers
The story goes that the Marquis of Abrantes, upon the King’s request, was informed that one carillon would cost him 400.000$00 réis – an astronomic price for a country as small as Portugal. Offended with such remark, King João V is said to have answered: “Well if it is that cheap, I’ll have two”.
The bells of the North tower carillon were wrought in Liège by Nicolau Levache, while those of the South tower were made in Antwerp by Willem Witlockx.
North tower South tower
Each bell tower had fifty eight bells, forty nine in each belonging to the carillon.
The heaviest bells weigh 725 arrobas each [1 arroba = 14,688 kg], i.e., around 9.180 kg. The second heaviest bells weigh 291 arrobas each, i.e., 4.270 kg; the third category bells weigh 231 arrobas, i.e., around 3.392 kg, and the fourth range bells 99 arrobas, or around 1.454 kg. Their size goes on decreasing with some weighing 1 arroba, and the smallest of all around 15 kg.
Finally the carillons wheels and other devices weigh 1.420 quintais [1 quintal = 58,752 kg], i.e., 83.427,84 kg.
The mechanism The cylinder
Both carillons have two systems: manual and automatic.
The automatic carillon system, connected with the clocks, is based on the Barbieri organ system, whereby two enormous bronze cylinders are equipped with steel pegs representing musical notes. When the cylinders are unlocked or moved by the clock mechanism, their movement causes the steel pegs to stroke the metal keys or flappers which, in turn, will make the hammers of the bells move in tune with the melody that has been programmed.
The cylinders or peg-barrels are moved individually by means of a 800kg lead weight going all the way from the towers down to the soil. Clocks had to be wound twice a day.
In the early days of the Convent automatic carillon clocks were played every hour and every quarter hour from sunrise to sunset but, while the Portuguese-made South tower clock would mark twelve hours a day, the Italian made North tower clock would only chime six hours a day.
Manual carillons are operated by a carillonneur on a baton keyboard played with both hands and feet that makes the bells toll.
The automatic mechanism The manual mechanism
Besides the carillon, there are eleven liturgical bells of Portuguese and Italian foundry, dating from 1730 to the late 19th century, an unique illustration of the liturgical use of bells.
The religious community attached such importance to the bells that they had up to 24 lay brothers working on them under the coordination of a lay friar. They had independent accommodations near the towers, including cells, one refectory and a chapel for spiritual exercises.