Sweet Carillon

By Lawrence Biemiller

Northfield, Vt. -- The irony of the carillon is this: It is the biggest and loudest of instruments, but almost no one ever sees who's playing it. Its bells ring out across a campus, or a countryside or city, and hundreds or thousands can listen. Yet the carillonneur is high in a tower room, sitting alone at the playing clavier with its wires and rattling levers. There is no applause and not much glory, even for pieces that take your breath away.

It's an odd kind of anonymity. But it seems to suit George Matthew Jr., who has been the carillonneur at both Middlebury College and Norwich University since 1986. With his briefcase and tortoiseshell glasses, a wisp of hair curling on his forehead, and a line of beard running under his chin, he has the demeanor of a shy and especially low-key math professor. But listen to him play, and you realize he's a showman who could give P.T. Barnum a run for his money.

The flourishes in his rendition of "It's a Grand Old Flag," the teasing pauses before a swell of sound in a familiar Johann Strauss waltz, the glorious melody of "Ave Maria" played on huge, deep bells with descants soaring above -- nothing low-key there. The small bells standing in for fifes in "Yankee Doodle," the energetic syncopation of "Red Peppers Rag," the lovely Chinese-style tremolos in Liling Huang's "Belfry Sketches," the clockwork precision of Bach -- he can do it all.

Or almost all. "What absolutely doesn't work are very late romantic pieces, like Richard Strauss," Mr. Matthew says, seated on the bench in front of the clavier in Adams Tower, a compact 1956 structure that holds the 47-bell carillon here at Norwich, a private military college. But he says "any folk music works well," and his years of playing before cadets' Friday-afternoon parades have also made him adept at patriotic pieces like the "Air Force Hymn" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." What he seems to enjoy most are, of all things, rags. He likes them so much that his European debut was "an all-rag recital" at a jazz festival in Ostend, Belgium.

"Ragtime comes off very well on the carillon," Mr. Matthew says. "It's one of the tragedies of music that Scott Joplin never encountered the carillon. I think great things would have happened."

The clavier in front of Mr. Matthew is arranged like a piano keyboard, but in place of keys it uses levers, called batons. Wires link each baton to the clapper of a bell, and counterweights ensure that the big and small bells can be played with the same amount of pressure. The bells themselves, visible through a small hatch Mr. Matthew has opened in the ceiling, range in weight from 21 to 3,500 pounds.

"I usually start by playing a few patriotic songs," he says as the hour approaches for a special recital marking Rook Day, on which new cadets arrive. He opens with "God Bless America" -- no slouch of a tune, especially when Mr. Matthew starts ornamenting it with echoes and trills.

Watching him play is a delight. He strikes the batons with the sides of his open hands, or with his fists, or with just two fingers. He can play two notes with one hand by using the thumb for one and the middle and ring fingers for the other. The low notes can be played either with the batons or with foot pedals. The clavier is big enough that he has to slide back and forth on the bench to reach all the notes he wants -- and he wants an awful lot of them. By the time he gets to the Strauss waltz "Wiener Blut," notes come in astonishing profusion.

Carillons have an unusual history. They evolved out of the bell mechanisms designed for elaborate public clocks in medieval Europe. As towns competed for the fanciest timepieces and the most elaborate striking mechanisms, clock builders began including more bells and then developed ways to play them manually. The earliest examples of what would now be considered carillons date to the late 16th century, Mr. Matthew says. Even now there are only about 600 carillons in the world, of which about 200 are in the United States, 65 of them on college campuses. (It takes at least 23 bells to make up a carillon; fewer than that, and the bells are a chime.)

A carillon's sound is unlike that of any other instrument. "The very complex shape of a bell means it's really two instruments cast into one," Mr. Matthew says. "If you strike a bell, you get a strike tone, a fourth, which doesn't last. It then becomes a minor third." The bell is tuned to the strike note, but the second tone -- darker and more foreboding than the first -- can be audible for 10 or 15 seconds or more, depending on the size of the bell. You have to listen carefully for the new notes among the fading vibrations of the old.

Transcribing existing works so they can be played on the carillon, Mr. Matthew says, is a tricky, subtractive business. "Bells are so rich in harmonics that you wouldn't want to hear more than two or three notes" at once, he says. On top of that, he says, bells' minor-third tones require a transcriber to employ assorted tricks "to avoid a clash of major and minor."

Pieces written expressly for the carillon are comparatively rare. "Mainstream composers ignored the instrument until recently," Mr. Matthew says, adding that Edward Elgar and Samuel Barber, among other 20th-century composers, wrote for the instrument.

Mr. Matthew is 68 but shows no signs of slowing down. He drives between jobs in a Jeep Wrangler with the license plate BEIAARD -- Dutch for carillon. He says he was inspired to learn the carillon while he was an undergraduate studying chemistry at Columbia University and heard a recital at Riverside Church. Although he has also worked for years as a church organist -- he currently plays for the Middlebury Congregational Church -- and also plays the piano and the harpsichord, he says the carillon is without a doubt his best instrument.

He has written and transcribed pieces for it himself, he says, "but mostly I've concentrated on learning new works." He is as likely to dive into a piece by the 17th-century French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully as he is to take on "Maquaam," a 1970 piece by Frank Tirro that Mr. Matthew describes as "a jazz expert's attempt to write Arabic for the carillon."

Thirty-six of the bells that are now here at Norwich were part of the Belgian exhibit at the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. A donor gave them to Harvard University, but they were never installed there, and in 1956 they were given instead to Norwich and installed in a specially constructed tower. Norwich added 11 more bells in 1958.

Middlebury's 48-bell instrument has an unlikely past as well. In the 1980s, a donor purchased a small carillon of Dutch bells from a Massachusetts church that was closing. The bells were added to the existing American chime in the steeple of the college's 1916 Mead Chapel, and supplemented with new bells from France. The mix failed to satisfy, however, and two years ago the Dutch bells and parts of the playing mechanism were replaced by Meeks, Watson & Company, of Georgetown, Ohio -- at the same donor's expense. "Now the instrument handles beautifully," says Mr. Matthew. Neither instrument, by the way, can be played mechanically.

Either Mr. Matthew or a student plays the Middlebury carillon at 5 p.m. every day during the semester, climbing high into the steeple to reach a small, windowless room decorated with carillon posters. The tower here at Norwich is plush by comparison, with not one window but two opening into the playing chamber. Mr. Matthew leaves the tower door open when he plays, and this morning the father of a student comes up for a quick visit with a camcorder during Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." He stays to enjoy the rhythm of "Cascades Rag."

"Ten minutes to go," Mr. Matthew says. "I usually end with a patriotic medley." He rolls through Civil War favorites, the hymns of the various armed services, show tunes like "Yankee Doodle Dandy." It's time for the finale -- "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Its verses trample the parade ground on the middle bells and then its hallelujahs rumble out to the hills on the big ones, with descants mounted two and three abreast. Finally, for what Mr. Matthew describes as a fireworks finish, his hands race up through the scales again and again, reaching higher and higher and ending at last in a spectacular, booming low C that lingers half a minute in the still air.

There is no applause. Mr. Matthew packs his briefcase, closes the windows, and heads quietly down the stairs.

Copyright © 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published September 26, 2003.