UCR Magazine The Magazine of UC Riverside

Fall 2016

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A View from the Top of the Tower

UCR's second carillonneur recalls her fondest memories of the UCR carillon and bell tower on its 50th birthday

Margo Halsted

Some of my fondest UCR memories happened in a space that is 162 feet in the air and smaller than the average household kitchen. But what a big sound we made together.

The story of the UCR Bell Tower and its carillon have several important characters. And a 50th birthday party is a good time to tell it.

For the inaugural celebration on Oct. 2, 1966, an estimated crowd of 500 persons gathered for the opening ceremony, and particularly to hear Professor Lowell J. Smith play the 48 carillon bells for the first time.

The UCR Bell Tower dedication in 1966

I became acquainted with the carillon in December of 1966 when I visited from my home in Pacific Palisades. Professor James B. Angell, my former carillon teacher at Stanford, joined me and we met Lowell and played UCR’s bells. I was hooked, and immediately asked Lowell if I could study with him. From then on, until June of 1987, I was in Riverside several days a week, playing whenever I could. First, I earned a UCR masters degree in performance practice of carillon. Then, the UCR Music Department hired me as a lecturer in 1977 to play and teach carillon, organ, and other music classes after Lowell Smith resigned in 1976.

Why do I love the bells so much? It’s exhilarating to move your whole body to play, and there’s usually no one else there you can see who could make you nervous. It’s a marvelous — and sometimes powerful — feeling. I’ve also been able to perform on carillons all over the world and to consult for eight new carillons.

The present carillonneur, David Christensen, another student of Lowell Smith, took over the duties of playing and teaching the carillon when I left to become carillonist and assistant professor of music at the University of Michigan School of Music. David regularly plays the UCR carillon for an hour on Monday noontimes throughout the school year. The tower playing room is open after David’s quarterly recitals, and one may watch the carillon played and look at the bells.

But, what is the carillon that the tower holds high up at its top? A carillon is a musical instrument consisting of at least 23 cup-shaped bells, tuned in chromatic series and played by a direct mechanical action connection from a keyboard that allows variation of touch (louds and softs). When a key is depressed about two inches, a wire attached to the middle of the key pulls the clapper into the side of its stationary bell above, and the bell sounds. The UCR carillon has four octaves of bells, which qualifies it as a concert carillon. The bells are exceptionally well-tuned and have a mellow sound. The largest bell weighs 5,091 pounds and the smallest bell 28 pounds. Note the position of the clappers and the various wires in the photo at the very top of this article. The playing room is located near the top of the tower just under the bell chamber, and a trap door is opened so that the performer can hear the bells well. (If the trap door is not opened, the performer will not hear the bells well.)

A well-trained and musical pianist very likely would have little trouble learning to play the carillon, even though one plays the carillon keys with fists — and also with feet because the larger bells have heavier clappers. The music looks like piano music, and many of the aspects of piano playing (such as phrasing, controlling volume, accenting notes) are the same.

Watch this carillon performance by David Christensen on YouTube; the foot pedals are out of view from the camera, but one can see the hand keys going down on the left side because the feet are playing those low notes.

Of course, it is necessary to learn and practice the music before playing it from the tower. A practice keyboard with tuned bar pitches, located in a Department of Music practice room, is a crucial element in the carillon program.

Carillonneurs Margo Halsted, left, with David Christensen

Carillonneurs Margo Halsted, left, with David Christensen

There are over 650 carillons in the world, 175 in the United States and five in California. New carillons are added every year. UCR is one of 64 schools, colleges and universities in the country that have a carillon. Other carillons in California are at Stanford University, Christ Cathedral, and two other campuses of the University of California: Berkeley and Santa Barbara.

David Christensen has been the UCR carillonneur for the past 29 years, and his two music degrees were earned at University of Redlands. He is also the music director and organist at Eden Lutheran Church in Riverside. You’ve already read some about me. My diplomas are from Stanford, UCR,  and the Netherlands Carillon School. I was at the University of Michigan for 16 years and retired as an associate professor emeritus to Southern California, near to my children and grandchildren. I am now carillonist at UC Santa Barbara. Lowell J. Smith, who played and taught at UCR from 1966-1976, has diplomas from Indiana University and the Netherlands Carillon School. Aside from teaching David Christensen and I, he taught a significant number of other students in the 10 years he was at UCR. At least four of his students went on to play the carillon professionally.

Then-UC Regent Philip Boyd, member of the UCR Citizens University Committee, and his wife Dorothy were the donors of the tower and carillon. What foresight they had to make such an intriguing gift! Music chair and Professor William Reynolds was the key person researching and planning the instrument in 1964 to 65. He listened to carillons all over the United States, and after finding one particular carillon whose bells he loved, he chose the same maker — bell founder Paccard of France — to create the bells. The firm of A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons designed the tower, and the contractor was Brezina Construction.

UCR has a particularly fine musical instrument, and its 50th birthday celebration cheers all who love its bells.

Now, here is some information about the birthday party, to which you all are invited: there will be four special concerts on consecutive Mondays at noon. At the first one, on Oct. 17, Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox will speak, a Scottish dancer and a bagpipe player will perform, and University Carillonneur David Christensen will play the bells. There will also be a reception near the tower.

The next three Monday noontime concerts will feature:

— Adjunct Associate Professor Margo Halsted is the carillonneur at UC Santa Barbara. She was UCR’s second carillonneur.