Carol of the bells

Carillon concert will 'ring' in Christmas Day

Carillon concert will 'ring' in Christmas Day

December 22, 2005|by KRISTIN WILSON

When Mercersburg Academy carillonneur James Smith sits down to play the bells on Christmas Eve, he will be bringing centuries of history to life.

The academy's 49-bell Henry Bucher Swoope Carillon dates to 1926, but the history of the complex system of heavy, tolling bells is traced back to the "low countries of Europe" many centuries ago, Smith says.

Public concerts are held at the academy throughout the school year to introduce audiences to the music made by the tons of bells. But the sounds of the carillon change during the Christmas and New Year's season.


Smith and his colleague Charles Farris are preparing two holiday eve concerts. The Christmas Eve carillon concert is at midnight Saturday, Dec. 24. The bells also will ring in song at midnight Saturday, Dec. 31.

The Christmas concert will include "every Christmas carol known to man," Smith jokes. "I'll play some secular and sacred tunes. I'm not above playing 'White Christmas.'"

Attendance has been increasing at the annual Christmas Eve concerts, Smith says. During the concert listeners may climb the 70-step bell tower and watch the bells - and Smith - in action.

"It's not something people see every day," he says. "People always enjoy seeing how it works. It's all manual. There's no electricity attached to it."

Smith has been the academy carillonneur for about 20 years. Still, the carillon presents constant challenges, he says.

To start with, the carillon bell system is enormous. Smith must navigate a peddle-and-lever keyboard that rings 49 bells varying in size and weight from an almost 4-ton bell with a 125-pound clapper to a 9-pound bell.

"A bell has a very complex harmonic structure," he explains. "When you ring one bell you get more than one pitch. You have to be careful how you put that bell together with another bell."

And considering how the bronze bells reverberate, accuracy is very important.

"You just want to make sure you hit the right ones because if you make a mistake it sounds like the whole world can hear it," Smith says.

If you go ...

WHAT: Christmas Eve Carillon Concert

WHEN: Midnight Saturday, Dec. 24

WHERE: Mercersburg Academy, Mercersburg, Pa.

COST: Free

DIRECTIONS: Take Interstate 81 north. Get off at exit 3 in Pennsylvania. Turn left off the exit onto U.S. 11 north. Turn left onto Pa. 16 and follow for about 10 miles. In Mercersburg turn right onto East Seminary Street.

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