Have you ever wondered what makes the music that so often drifts across campus from Mead Chapel?
It is the sound of the carillon, a bell instrument that plays Bach, Lady Gaga and everything in between.
This summer, Middlebury College hosted its 33rd Summer Carillon Series.
College carillonneur George Matthew Jr. explained that carillons are defined as instruments with 23 bells or more. Matthew played the third and last concerts of the series. When summer language schools are in session, he also plays music from the respective origins of the Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Portuguese and Russian schools for their graduation ceremonies.
“We all know each other,” Matthew said, “the carillon players throughout the world. People in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia.”
It is through these friendly relations that carillon artists find their way to Middlebury for the long-running Summer Concert Series and through these same networks that Matthew is invited to play at concerts all over the world.
Between the Summer Carillon Series and Matthew and his students, the carillon at Mead Chapel averages over 100 playings a year.
According to Matthew, the bell corresponding to the lowest note on the carillon, an E one octave below middle C, is 2,300 pounds and weighs more than the Liberty Bell. Playing this note on the wooden manual keyboard requires about as much force as stapling together a ten-page paper. After the keyboard at the console is pressed, a clapper connected by wire to the keyboard strikes the corresponding bell in the tower above. Though the bells of Mead Chapel ring clear over almost all of campus, inside the tower, the music of the bells above ismuted and sounds far away.
During the school year, pieces such as Middlebury’s alma mater, various Bach chorale preludes, Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter movie franchise and even a few of Gaga’s billboard hits can occasionally be heard.
Though he doesn’t name favorites, Matthew says that ragtime is a genre for which the carillon works surprisingly well — his European debut, in fact, was an all-ragtime program in Ostende, Belgium. In addition to pieces written for the carillon, any pieces he plays were originally written for the organ or piano and arranged for the carillon, sometimes by Matthew himself, to adjust to the monumental instrument’s unique characteristics.
“Just think of a piano transcribed down a fourth or an octave,” Matthew says. “You wouldn’t want to play very fast on that.”
Matthew’s carillon repertoire ranges from Bach to ragtime to music from around the world, and his students come from a similarly diverse range of musical backgrounds and experiences. Despite varying degrees of exposure to the instrument, most found their way to the carillon at Middlebury serendipitously. When he plays, Matthew leaves to door to the bell tower open and unlocked as an implicit invitation for students to come see the carillon for themselves.
Benjamin Feinstein ’20, who started playing in his freshman year at Middlebury, discovered the carillon “a bit by accident.” Wandering up to the bell tower one day, he found at the carillon Mr. Matthew, who was “super enthusiastic about getting more people involved with lessons and concerts.” Feinstein has been taking lessons on the carillon ever since.
One of Matthew’s accomplishments in teaching the carillon is to help his students see the variety of expressions and possibilities in the carillon. Feinstein said“a giant, echoing contraption” such as the carillon, pieces such as Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” sound “particularly ridiculous” in a good way, but even more contemporary works such as “Into the Unknown” or Harry Potter tracks can feel “very satisfyingly powerful, emotionally.”
As a freshman, Hannah Blake ’21 had been intrigued by the variety of pieces played on the carillon bells throughout the day and wondered, “What the heck is going on up there?”
Though her three years of playing the clarinet in elementary school gave her limited musical background in keyboard instruments, Blake enjoys her weekly lessons with Matthew.
“It’s quite an experience when you play the real one in Mead Chapel knowing the entire campus can hear you,” Blake said.
“There’s something a little nerve-wracking about knowing you’re guaranteed to be heard, but it’s honestly pretty exciting for the same reasons,” Feinstein said.
Coming from a background in English handbells, he is familiar with the dynamics of “working together as an orchestra of sorts,” and “usually prefers to blend in the background” musically, but found the resounding presence of the carillon to be “a fun change of pace.”
Tiansheng Sun ’20 reflects on the nuances of playing an instrument that is meant to be heard from near and far.
“When you inevitably make a mistake,” Sun said, “you can’t panic. You have to smooth it over, and create the illusion that there were no mistakes in the first place.”
The mechanics of playing such a large instrument can present another difficulty.
“The bass notes of the carillon are particularly loud, and sometimes tend to overpower the higher-pitched parts of the melody,” Sun said. “We don’t get this feeling on the practice carillon,” whose sound is produced by a xylophone, he said, so figuring out how to appropriately practice and play in a controlled manner becomes an important issue to resolve.
The only student of Matthew’s with prior experience on the carillon, Abigail Stone ’20.5, had played on a 23-bell carillon in high school as part of a student group.
“We didn’t really have a teacher and we had no idea what we were doing,” Stone says, “but we figured out some basics with our combined music knowledge.”
Stone is thrilled to be playing on Middlebury’s 48-bell carillon, which she views as “a fun challenge to adapt to,” and points out that the larger number of bells means that “there’s a much more diverse array of repertoire that can be played on Middlebury’s carillon.”
Student lessons on the carillon are free, Matthew says, and provided without financial incentive.
Filling the walls of Matthew’s office are posters from concerts in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Russia, where he was the first American to play in St. Petersburg in 2004. Hanging among the posters is a poem by a former student of Matthew’s at Middlebury, which captures the expressiveness and sweeping presence of an instrument that deserves to be heard as more than just background noise.
“Now an evanescent whisper,
Soon a burgeoning cry.
Ever clanging, yet softly shining.
Hark, from on high there
Floats a glorious sound!
Oh, triumphant bells,
Echoing throughout the world.
Breathing, speaking, ceasing not.”
At busy times in the semester when entire days and weeks can seem like a blur, the carillon is a grounding presence. It reminds us to be present, to be aware and to be appreciative of where we are.