Long-Awaited Bell to Complete Smith College Carillon
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Wistful words penned by a French poet adorn the new bell that is slated to complete Smith College’s carillon, a set of tuned bells connected to a keyboard in College Hall.
The 2,000-pound instrument, custom built in France, produces one of the lowest chimes of the 48 bells that make up Smith’s carillon. While more common in Europe, there are less than 200 carillons in the United States. (To hear a carillon, scroll down this Culver Memorial Chapel Web page and choose a "sound file.")
“When the carillon was built in the 1970s, one of the low bells was not installed,” said Grant Moss, senior lecturer in music. “The new bell is due to arrive in the states around March 13. After clearing customs, it will be ready to be shipped to Smith for installation.”
Expected to be hoisted into place before the end of the month, the bell will bear the words of Marceline Debordes-Valmore in French. Translated to English, the verse reads: “When the bells in the evening slow down time in the valley, if you have no friends or lovers close to you, think of me! Think of me!”
Most big bells have an inscription, according to Moss, who asked Music Director Peter Bloom to make the selection for the new one.
Bloom’s choice, with its entreaty "think of me," seems particularly apt given the history behind the carillon. The bells that initiated the collection were funded by an endowment in the memory of Dorothea Carlile ’22, who died of influenza early in her first year of Smith. Carlile’s parents began the fund and restricted it to the purchase of bells “to preserve the memory of a particularly joyous and buoyant personality.”
Over time, the endowment allowed the original set of 12 bells to expand in number and musical range to two octaves, making it an official carillon.
As defined by the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America, a carillon is a musical instrument consisting of at least two octaves of bells arranged in chromatic series and played from a keyboard.
In the final significant step for Smith’s instrument, through the generosity of the Very Reverend and Mrs. Charles U. Harris – who will be honored in an inscription on the bell – the number of octaves in the carillon doubled to four.
The bells that make up Smith’s carillon range in size from a D-sharp, weighing 24 pounds, to the D-sharp four octaves lower, weighing more than 2,800 pounds.
A musician plays the carillon from a baton clavier, which is made up of a set of wooden keys or batons. The keys are about the shape of broomstick handles but slightly smaller and are arranged in two rows, like the keys of a piano.
The two lowest octaves of bells are also connected to pedals so that they may be played with the feet. Because it would be impossible to practice playing the carillon without the sound ringing across campus, the musician practices on a digital instrument in the room in College Hall directly below the actual instrument.
Bloom, who selected the inscription for the bell, will not likely be on campus the first time the complete carillon is played, an event that is planned for commencement weekend. But, he noted, “From Paris, where I am directing the Smith junior year abroad program in the midst of university professors on strike, essentially because the government seems not to value their work, I hope the new bell will ring out for peace, freedom and harmony.”
Smith College educates women of promise for lives of distinction. One of the largest women’s colleges in the United States, Smith enrolls 2,800 students from nearly every state and 62 other countries.