Jenny’s Pennies: Why Are the Bells Ringing?

Why Are the Bells Ringing?

We have all heard the saying, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings!” made famous by the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. It truly so wonderful to look at the world from the emotional perspective of a child. In New Wilmington we often hear bells, every 15 minutes as a matter of fact, but what is their story? This edition of Jenny’s Pennies will give you a little more information about the amazing bells that our little town is so lucky to have. It is my hope that after you read this brief article when you hear the bells that you will think fondly of them and the symbolism that they have for our community.

Every Sunday at 6:30pm the town of New Wilmington is graced with the amazing sound of bells, well not bells, but a Carillon. Westminster College is home to a set of 42 bells that make up their Carillon, however, this wasn’t always so. In 1935 William and Mary Duff presented the College with the original 12 bells of the current Carillon in honor of their two daughters, Charlotte and Letitia Duff. At this time the bells were simply called Chimes, you must have a minimum of 23 bells to officially be called a Carillon. It wasn’t until 1978 when Katherine Stewart Armington (class of 1916) presented an additional 23 bells to the College that the bells officially became a Carillon. The most recent addition to the Carillon was in 2006 when the class of 1956 donated an additional seven bells which brought the grand total to 42 bells.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about all of these bells I immediately picture something like the movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame where someone has to run around pulling huge strings and dodging the bells. Well if you are like me, you are mistaken. I recently had the privilege to join a community music group for a lecture and demonstration on the Westminster Carillon. Each Carillon is actually controlled by a keyboard and pedal type station called a CLAVIER. These pedals and keys represent the black and white keys of the piano keyboard and are controlled by both the players hands and feet, much like an organ. Not only is this Clavier controlled away from the bells, but it also controls the bells volume much in the same way as a piano. There is also a practice keyboard for the students, or professionals called Carillonneurs, to practice on.

The Carillon has a very interesting history around the world. Carillons reached their peak around 1790, large cities could have 5 or more. Carillons began to represent financial status for an area. There were about 250 Carillons worldwide, by 1918 however the number dropped to 120. Why would this number drop? When the world was at war and cities were bombed, the armies would actually melt down these beautiful bells to make ammunition. How sad it is to think that something that was so sacred as the bells in a church tower would be used to make weapons for war. With an average weight between 5 and 17 tons, these bells were a huge resource during this time of horrible turmoil.

Today the Carillon has seen a renaissance! From the 120 Carillons in 1918, their numbers have soared, currently there are over 640 world-wide. Texas, Pennsylvania, and Michigan lead the states with the largest number of Carillons. That’s great, right? Well, as great as that is, the number of Carilloneurs has gradually been decreasing. It is thanks to people like the alumni of Westminster that have felt the importance of continuing the tradition of the Carillon that have helped keep the art alive.

There is a scholarship available called the “Friends of the Carillon” that was established by the Rev. Dr. Paul Musser and his wife Peggy Musser, both class of 1945. Dr. Musser actually played the Carillon when he attended college and a little birdy told me that it is really special to him for another reason; Paul asked Peggy for her hand under the shadow of the Carillon. During his freshman year at Westminster, Paul was asked by Mr. Cameron, the head of the music department to begin taking lessons and playing the Carillon. Paul was not very enthusiastic at first but changed his tune when he discovered that half of his tuition would be covered if he agreed. Paul was in a bit of a bind because at the time the Carillon still only had 12 bells and this made his choice of songs very limited. Paul had gumption and he began to rewrite hymns in the key of F, G, and C to add to the available songs that he could play.

The Rev. Dr. Paul and Peggy Musser graduated in 1945 and when they came back for their 50-year class reunion they played the Carillon together. What songs were played you ask? Well that’s simple, they played their Alma Mater and the School Fight Song, it was homecoming after all. It was clear that interest had once again gone down for playing the Carillon and Mr. and Mrs. Musser were not happy about that. They started the endowment scholarship along with other alumni as an incentive for students to continue the tradition of learning the Carillon and the weekly playing before the Sunday vespers service. The Musser family is hopeful that continued interest and expanded performances are on the horizon for the Westminster Carillon.

Westminster currently has 42 bells. A complete Concert Carillon is considered to have 49 bells, although they can range from 23-77. How wonderful would it be to have a completed Carillon in our town where a scholarship exists to help ensure that we will always hear the bells ringing! This is no small feat, the current Carillon at the Duff Armington Memorial Tower weighs 5,791 lbs. The supportive structure would need to be updated and the keyboard would need replaced to fit the batons that would strike the bells to make them sing. I encourage you to call the Chapel Office at Westminster College to set up a group tour and experience the beauty and history of our home town treasure.

So, who is playing the Carillon at Westminster College? Well the bells that ring every 15 minutes are controlled electronically. On Sunday evenings at 6:30pm, you are being serenaded by the Student Guild of Carillonneurs. Other concerts throughout the year highlight students, their instructor Paula Kubik, or visiting guest musicians. Mrs. Kubik arranged for special guest Carillonneurs to perform this month. July 20th Jim Fackenthal from the University of Chicago will be coming as well as July 27th Gordon Slater from Canada will be performing. Both of these upcoming concerts will begin at 12:00pm sharp, I am sure they will be a delight. I look forward to an enhanced listening experience after learning more about this amazing instrument and hope you will as well.

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