The Chapel Carillon

Delivery of the Carillon, 1932In April 1930, Duke President William Preston Few opened a letter from George G. Allen and William R. Perkins, Chairman and Vice- Chairman of The Duke Endowment, which began, "We desire to present to the University a carillon for installation in the tower of the church which is now under construction. . . ." Despite imminent departure from campus, Few penned a hasty but heartfelt reply saying, "It is a beautiful gift you have made. The Chapel bells will in a sense be the voice of the University, and it is most appropriate that this voice should come through the two men now living who were most intimately associated with Mr. James B. Duke."

The surprise gift was unique but most fitting for the 210-foot Chapel tower beginning to rise from its foundations. Carillons have a long history dating from the 16th century in Belgium and Holland. They had evolved from chimes and were mostly associated with municipal timepieces in a centrally located clock tower. However, the instrument passed into decline in the 18th century, in part due to the death of bellfounders who always had guarded their secrets for casting finely tuned bells. Also the advent of private indoor clocks and watches and the popularity of the concert hall for musical performance relegated the surviving carillons to the status of museum pieces subject to deterioration and changing fashion. It was not until the 20th century that a revival of interest in carillons occurred and not until 1922 that the first one was installed in the United States. It is not known why Allen and Perkins selected a carillon as a gift for the University but one can speculate that they got the idea from the installation of a carillon at Park Avenue Baptist Church in New York City in 1925. Residing in New York, they undoubtedly saw the extensive publicity concerning the installation of that large fifty- three bell carillon.

The Duke carillon was cast by the Taylor Bell Foundry of Loughborough, England, heirs to a succession of foundries dating to 1360. Most significantly the firm, along with only one other, assumed the lead in perfecting the casting and tuning of a perfect set of bells, thus initiating the 20th century renaissance in carillons. The size of the largest bell and the range of scale distinguish the character and importance of a carillon more than its total number of bells. The Duke carillon has 50 bells ranging over four chromatic octaves varying in weight from 10 to 11,200 pounds and in size from 8 inches to 6 feet, 9 inches in diameter. While not the largest, the combination of size, number, and tonal quality make the Duke carillon one of the more outstanding examples of that ancient instrument. At right, Duke's President Few, Dean Wannamaker, and Vice President Flowers, with F. C. Godfrey of the Taylor Foundry gather as the bells are delivered to campus.

Modern carillons, such as those nearby at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tend to be electronically played, but hand playing is vastly superior as it is the only way to develop any gradation of volume or tone. Playing is hard work. One pounds the keys with the downward stroke of a slightly balled fist. In reality the keys are more like levers which pull a mechanism that pulls the clapper against a stationary bell. Force sufficient to move clappers sometimes weighing over one hundred pounds is required to strike the larger bells.

Duke has had only two individuals designated as the University Carillonneur. The first, from 1932 until 1956, was Anton Brees, a native of Belgium, who divided his time between the Bok Singing Tower at Lake Wales, Florida, and Duke. His inaugural Duke recital, as part of commencement weekend in 1932, attracted 10,000 people. The current carillonneur, J. Samuel Hammond, was designated University Carillonneur by President Brodie in 1986. Hammond, trained in piano and organ, began playing the carillon in 1965 while an undergraduate student in history. A member of the Guild of Carillonneurs of North America, he is also Rare Book Librarian in Perkins Library.

Acknowledging that the carillon is a very public instrument, Hammond tries to respond to public occasions in his daily concerts. He begins by ringing the five o'clock hour with the largest bell. Then by careful listening one can usually identify the current holiday or patriotic or religious occasion by the selections being played. Or sometimes "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" may be appropriate for the day. He even has been prompted to play the theme from Mickey Mouse on occasion. One welcome tradition is the rendition of the alma mater, "Dear Old Duke," every Friday afternoon.

To many in the University community, the carillon is a most pleasant "voice," always enjoyed on special occasions, but especially welcome at the end of each workday.


Related Resources


© 1991. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.