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The Carillon on Campus: Inside the History of the Bell Tower

I.Bingham/The Phillipian

From the eight chimes in the morning that indicate the 8:00 a.m. start of classes or the medleys played for dinner every night, the sounds of the Memorial Bell Tower are a consistent part of campus life. These sounds, produced by a keyboard-operated set of bells called the carillon, have a long history at Andover.

Completed in 1922, the tower was built as a memorial for the 87 Andover men who were killed in World War I. The carillon, the bell structure inside the tower, was installed a year later in 1923, according to Carl Johnson, W.B. Clift Head Music Librarian.

The method of playing the carillon resembles that of the piano, in that there are a series of keys that correspond to specific notes. Instead of using one’s fingers, as with the piano, players curl their hands into loose fists to press down on the keys, according to Johnson.

“The [keys are] pretty far apart compared to a piano keyboard; each one of these notes is maybe two inches apart or three inches apart, so you can’t play a Beethoven closed chord with ten notes in there. That’s impossible. You can play maybe three notes at once with two hands,” said Johnson.

Johnson continued, “So the music is, by design, very simple. You can play a bass melody and then one or two notes in the upper register, but you can’t play Chopin or Beethoven sonatas. Well you can do it, but it won’t sound good. You have to water it down basically and simplify the music.”

Carl Pfatteicher, former Instructor in Music at Andover during the 1920s, had first heard a carillon instrument at Our Lady of Good Voyage, a Portuguese church in Gloucester, Mass. Liking its sound, he organized for Andover to install a carillon inside the bell tower.

Originally built with 23 bells, the tower could play three octaves.

Later in the 1930s and 1940s, the school gradually added more bells to the tower until they reached 49 bells, which play four octaves.

The bells ring on the hour, chime once on the half hour, and play a medley at 5:00 p.m. every day.

Martina Gil-Diaz ’21 said, “The [bell] tower for me is a reminder of when it’s getting too late at night… On Sundays at 8:00 or 9:00 it’ll ring, and it just reminds me that I need to start getting ready for sleep and that I’m taking too long with my homework.”

The keyboard that currently operates the carillon lives in a room at the base of the tower and is attached to a system that relays the notes played up to the bells to chimed in real time. Additionally, a computer is connected to this system, and recorded songs can be played with the options of slowing them down or speeding them up.

Johnson said, “We have a mini keyboard in the base of the tower right where the door is. A piano keyboard that sends electrical signals to a box and that box sends the electrical impulses up to the bells in the top, and they actuate electromagnets that pull these hammers that hit the bells.”

Johnson continued, “There’s less finesse to the playing now because it’s electrical… It doesn’t have that nuance and subtlety that a musician would really want, but it’s musical still, and you can play anything you want. It still works fine.”

The electric carillon was installed in 2005 after moisture rusting out the iron inside bricks led to severe structural issues in the 1990s. The tower was condemned, and the original carillon was last played in 1991.

“Unfortunately, they had to take out the manual-playing carillon mechanism, which is up in the tower — it’s just below the bells, it’s the level below the bells. It could be put back in the future if they decide to do it,” said Johnson.

Johnson encourages students who are fairly proficient in keyboard instruments to try and play chimes.

“I used to have a lot of students who would do that, and it’s just good to have somebody come in the middle of the week who’s actually playing live and they can play fun stuff like the theme from ‘Superman’ or ‘Harry Potter,’” said Johnson.