The independent news organization of Duke University

The ringing of the bells

The resonating sound of chiming bells fills the quad, and all breathe a sigh of relief at this familiar signal tells us that the day is drawing to a close.

Most students and faculty agree that the chapel bells are an important part of the University's environment and enjoy this friendly reminder that it is five o'clock. "I'm so accustomed to it and it's a pleasant sound," Professor of Religion Wesley Kort said. "I enjoy walking out of the building to it."

Although the bells have a range of about one mile, they do not seem to disturb classes or bother students who are studying.

"I have a class on Science Drive around five, but we don't really hear it too much," freshman Thomas Kuhn said. "In fact, we try to get out a little early so that we can walk right next to the Chapel and hear it."

The Duke Chapel carillon is comprised of 50 bells ranging in weight from 10.5 to 11,200 pounds and in diameter from 6 3/8 inches to 6 feet, 9 inches.

The bells are rung every weekday at 5 p.m. and every Sunday before and after chapel services, a tradition dating back to at least the early 1950s.

The bronze bells do not actually move during this process, rather the clappers attached to them do. A carillonneur, or bell player, plays on a console, somewhat like a piano keyboard, containing a double row of levers and a pedal board.

And contrary to some rumors around campus that the bells are not actually ringing or that they are set to an automatic timer, Sam Hammond sits at the carillon console every day at five to play this instrument.

Hammond, an associate librarian in Special Collections, has been ringing the bells since he was a sophomore at the University in 1965.

"I usually play a short something just before five and this is often part of a hymn, and if it is a specific holiday season, I try to make it appropriate and fitting to that," Hammond said. "Most often I do include a hymn, otherwise it might be a transcription."

Hammond's program usually includes some combination of hymn-tune improvisations, folk-song arrangements, transcriptions of music originally for other instruments and original carillon compositions.

Hammond explained that aside from the typical schedule, he typically plays the carrillon for state funerals, Founders' Day events, commencement and the dedication of some buildings.

The 5 p.m. chiming now serves to indicate the end of the workday, but some years ago, it also signaled the opening of the dining halls because there were not always eateries open throughout the day.

The Chapel bells were cast by the Taylor Bell Company of Loughborough, England in 1930. George Allen and William Perkins, for whom the Allen Building and Perkins Library are named respectively, donated the bells to the University in 1929 before the Chapel was completely constructed.

In 1992, the University spent over $300,000 to restore the entire carillon and return the bells to state-of-the-art condition. Hammond explained that the bells never actually left the tower during this process. Instead, the highest 29 bells were removed from the framework, and a new frame was put in.

Dean of the Chapel William Willimon said this was an important task because the bells are exposed to the elements, and the University did not want this symbol of Duke to be slowly destroyed. "I think it's a beloved part of being at Duke," Willimon said. "It's a rare sound that isn't heard much in our world anymore."

Willimon added that the carillon is one of the most public instruments, and one can never tell how many people are affected by it or just how wide its ministry is. He noted that many times a depressed or stressed student may find ease in the familiar, comforting sound of the bells.

Some freshmen admit that they have yet to hear the bells because they are not on West Campus during the traditional 5 p.m. ringing.

"I think the Chapel is a big focal point of our campus, but I have actually never heard the bells before," said freshman Yun Ja Park.

But most seem to enjoy the constancy that the ringing of the bells provides. "The fact that the bells are still in working order, that adds a nice touch... it gives the campus character," freshman Taylor Upson said. "It emphasizes all of the history of Duke."

Freshman Martin Sullivan relies on them for a dual purpose.

"I like [the bells] and think that it adds to the atmosphere, especially considering the Gothic architecture of the campus," he said. "I have a class just after five and sometimes I'll be taking a nap outside and the bells will wake me up... so in that way they actually help me out a little."

Discussion

Share and discuss “The ringing of the bells” on social media.