November 26, 2013

Bells are Ringing

The Old Chapel bells play daily, thanks to a new automated mechanism

For many years it was an infrequent treat to hear the lovely tones of the 42-bell carillon ringing from the Old Chapel. During this sesquicentennial year, the sound of the bells has once again become part of daily campus life. A new computerized electronic auto-play mechanism, installed in the Old Chapel last spring, now plays the bells three times a day.

Carillonneurs can play a wide range of music—from hymns and classical music to popular songs—with the 42 bronze bells, which in 2004 replaced the chapel’s 10 original bells. To date more than a dozen traditional Mass Aggie melodies have been programmed into the auto-player. “Hail to Thee Our Alma Mater” plays every morning at 8:00. At noon, another of the selection of campus tunes plays, and at 5 p.m. “When Twilight Shadows Deepen,” fills the air.

Richard Nathhorst ’79, who has been instrumental in the movement to restore the 1884 Old Chapel, its bells, and its 1892 Seth Thomas tower clock, used the scientific German he learned as a student to translate the auto-player’s computer manual from Dutch.

“The fact that we have a world-class carillon and now an auto-player for it is largely due to the vision and generosity of Henry Vincent Couper  [Class of 1937] and his nephew, Frank Couper,” Nathhorst says.  Funds from Couper family’s endowment have also been used to purchase a practice keyboard for the carillon. “Instead of ringing the big bronze bells in the tower it plays a glockenspiel-style mechanism so that the carillonneur can practice in privacy,” Nathhorst explains. The practice keyboard will allow the founding of a new UMass Amherst Guild of Carillonneurs open to students, staff, and faculty.

The daily peals of the Old Chapel bells can be heard as a reawakening of the historic and beloved building. Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy is supporting plans for its preservation, renovation, and reopening.  “It’s time for us to reclaim this part of our history,” he said at a homecoming weekend event in the Old Chapel. “Its potential towers like the clock above our heads.”