Middlebury carillon rings for High Holy Days

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(Host) This Friday in Middlebury, the college carillon will ring out across the village to mark the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. VPR’s Steve Zind visited with the man who coaxes music from 11 tons of bells.

(Sound of keys in turning in the door and footfalls on the steps.)

(Zind) George Matthew climbs the dizzyingly steep wooden stairs that lead to the top of the steeple at Mead Chapel on the Middlebury College campus. He enters a small room and sits on a bench facing rows of wooden levers or ‘battens’ which he operates with his hands and feet. Each is connected through cables and pulleys to clappers that strike a series of stationary bells located through a small hatchway directly overhead.

The bells in the chapel steeple have chimed ever since 1918, but Matthew says it wasn’t until 1986 that the college added enough bells to make a carillon.

(Matthew) “For it to be a carillon you have to have 23 or more bells and there’s 48 here. The largest one weighs a little over 2,300 pounds. I always tell people, ‘This is what the Liberty Bell would sound like if it weren’t cracked. And the smallest one is about eight inches tall.

“It’s really like a gigantic piano when you come down to it. The tone is much more complex. There are in a piano string twelve or thirteen easily measurable harmonics, more in the deeper strings. And there are more than fifty in a carillon bell, the highest ones die fastest and the deepest ones are the last to die away. Therefore you hear this beautiful hum tone after the bell is struck for some time afterwards.”

(Zind) Matthew says a proficient carillonneur combines emotion with technique, incorporating the overtones and long sustaining notes produced by the bells. His own introduction to the instrument came when a small boy from Yonkers visited the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

(Matthew) “My grandfather put me up on his shoulders and I looked over what seemed like a sea of people and here was what seemed like an incredibly old man with a long, white beard pounding away on a set of levers which made the most wonderful and incredible amount of noise.”

(Zind) Matthew has established a tradition of playing the Middlebury carillon to mark Jewish High Holy days and Christian holidays. Though many carillons are located in church steeples, the origins of the instrument are secular and go back to sixteenth century Belgium.

(Matthew) “People didn’t have watches 400, 500 years ago. And the hours were struck on bells, usually fairly large ones so they could be heard all over the city. Now the problem was when you hear a bell striking the hour, did you hear all of it or did you miss the first one or two strokes?”

(Zind) Matthew says the carillon began as a set of small bells to alert townspeople just before the large bell tolled the time.

(Matthew) “So they started installing sets of small bells which would ring some simple melody. And the Flemish towns used to vie with each other for the most beautiful and elaborate melodies that they could have.”

(Zind) There are about 175 carillons in the U.S. and about the same number of professional carillonneurs. Matthew also plays Vermont’s only other true carillon, located at Norwich University. He says many classical works lend themselves to the instrument, but he’s also played Chinese and Arabic music on the carillon.

Matthew says this centuries-old instrument is gaining in popularity. More modern composers are writing for carillon and each year a handful of new carillons is installed in the U.S.

(Matthew) “To me the golden age of the carillon is right now.”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Middlebury.

George Matthew will play the carillon to mark the beginning of Yom Kippur on Friday evening at 5:45.

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