The tradition of the bells plays on in Mercersburg

December 28, 2004|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - On a clear day, especially when it's cold, anyone standing within three miles of Mercersburg Academy can hear the carillon sounding from the tower that looms above the school's chapel.

"There's more resonance when the ground is frozen," said James W. Smith, the academy's resident carillonneur since 1984. "There's less when the ground is soft and leaves are in the trees."

Smith, 65, retired from the academy's music department in 2001, ending a 40-year teaching career, but he's never left his beloved carillon.


At least four times a week, Smith makes the 65-step climb to his office in the tower. About 15 feet above his desk sit the 49 carefully cast and tuned bronze bells that make up the carillon - all 42 tons of them.

They've been up there since the day in 1926 that first lady Grace Coolidge, standing in for her husband, President Calvin Coolidge, dedicated the carillon.

Two of the Coolidges' sons attended the academy. Coolidge laid the cornerstone for the chapel in 1922 when he was Warren G. Harding's vice president.

Across from Smith's desk is the keyboard, or clavier, which controls the clappers that strike the bells. Steel wires connect the clappers to the fingerlike wooden batons that jut out from the keyboard and to the wooden blocks below.

Smith controls a bell's tone with a twist of his fingers on an adjusting wheel on each wire.

"You don't tune a carillon," he said. "You just adjust the tone."

Smith plays high octave notes on the wooden batons with his hands, caressing them with his fingers or hitting them with loosely clenched fists. He taps the bass note blocks with his feet.

Because the instrument is maneuvered by mechanics instead of electronics, it enables its player to control its dynamics, something Smith said is necessary "to put expression into your music. If it was electronic, the clapper would strike the bell the same way every time. You have to be able to change the dynamic to make the music."

Despite its massive weight, a carillon, Smith said, "is a gentle musical instrument."

The biggest bell in the academy's carillon weighs 4 tons. Shard from the Liberty Bell was cast into it, Smith said. The smallest bells in the tower weigh only a few pounds.

Smith is the school's third resident carillonneur. The first, Anton Brees, stayed for two years. He was followed by Bryan Barker, who played the instrument for 51 years.

Barker started playing concerts every Sunday at 3 p.m. whenever school was in session. The concerts became popular with townspeople but went silent with his retirement.

Smith plays piano and organ. He took up the carillon later, but had not mastered the instrument by the time Barker left.

"The people in town missed the Sunday concerts," he said.

Smith learned from a master, Richard Strauss, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

"I gradually got good at it," he said.

Smith, who has brought back the Sunday concerts, plays four times a week - the concert, to announce the 5 p.m. Sunday chapel services and twice during the week to call the academy's 450 students to meetings.

The years of climbing the tower wore out his knees, he said.

"Going up is OK, but it's hard coming down," he said. "My knees are shot from arthritis. I've had one operated on and the other one is due."

Smith came up with a program that keeps him off the tower steps at least part of the time.

He belongs to the Guild of Carillonneurs of North America. It holds an annual convention at different sites around the country. Four years ago, it was at Mercersburg Academy.

The members, like Smith, are certified carillonneurs. It's a small community. Everyone knows everyone else. Smith decided to recruit his fellow members to perform at the Sunday afternoon concerts.

Every year, between 20 and 25 guild carillonneurs come to Mercersburg from around the country. Their fees, expenses and stipends are financed through an endowment.

Smith has scheduled guest performers for 16 of the 21 Sunday recitals planned for 2005. Performers are from Connecticut, Virginia, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Minnesota.

Suzanne Magassey, from Canberra, Australia, will perform the final concert on June 4.

Smith, too, takes to the road. This summer, he traveled throughout the East performing carillon concerts. He played 13 different concerts over a two-week period.

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