BEREA, Ky. (FOX 56) – Sometimes, when it’s least expected, a song rings out across the campus of Berea College. The music comes from the tower atop Draper Hall, played by the chair of the music department, who’s also known as “the keeper of the carillon.”
“It was one of those privileges that fell upon me without knowing how lucky I was to do this,” said Dr. Javier Clavere.
A carillon is an instrument with lever-like keys and pedals that control at least 23 bells. The one at Berea has 56 bells hidden in the tower, making it the largest of just four carillons in the state. The largest bell weighs 2,750 pounds. The lightest one is about 18 pounds.
You can hear carillon bells all over the country on campuses, at courthouses, and in town squares. But nine times out of ten they’re electronically programmed. The one in Berea requires an instrumentalist.
When Dr. Clavere plays it, he’s in his own little world.
“Because as a carillonneur, you stay in the anonymity of the music, whereas in a concert hall you are showcased with the music and ego can come into play,” he said. “But with a carillon, it is only the music. No one even knows who’s playing it.”
The carillon came to be here because a former music professor, John Courter, pushed for it for nearly 30 years. A set of bells became available for sale in 1992 and he helped the college raise the money to get them. But it took another decade and a lot more money for the tower to be built to house them.
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Now, almost 20 years later, people can’t imagine campus without the bells.
Dr. Edwin Broadhead, Professor of General Studies, wrote an essay about the bells:
I think of the bells of Berea as a unique kind of voice. They fall upon the ear in a different way than a song or an instrument. They engage a different part of the brain and evoke a different set of emotions.
The bells of Berea are a voice of history. There is an extraordinary collection of bells scattered throughout the town, and each played a different role in the Berea story. In addition to the carillon bells in Phelps-Stokes Chapel and in the Draper Building, there is a large bell at the Christian Church, donated by John and Matilda Fee while he was pastor there, and it is thought perhaps to come from Camp Nelson and the school they established there during the Civil War. The African American congregation of First Baptist Church enjoys the tones of a bell thought to come from the Freedman’s Society. In Union Church there is a large ceramic peace bell that celebrates the legacy of Karl and Ruth Eschbach, who were prisoners of war in a Japanese internment camp. After the war, they reconciled with the commandant of the camp, and a twin bell was placed in Kyoto, Japan—the sister city of Berea—as a symbol of peace.
The smaller carillon in Phelps-Stokes Chapel once played a part in the civil defense warning system, and it was used to call together the Berea Fire Brigade, which included Berea College Students. On Berea College’s annual Mountain Day, the morning bells signal whether the celebration is cancelled (“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”) or whether it is a go (“She’ll Be Riding Around the Mountain When She Comes”).
The grand set of bells atop Draper Hall was procured by Professor John Courter, who was world-renowed as our first carilloneer. Among the pieces he composed specifically for these bells was a tribute for the victims of 911. The keyboard of the Draper chimes is a combination of European and American style, and music scholars come to test and study it.
The bells are also a voice of community. They can express a collective voice of grief or memory or celebration. Everyone can hear them at once, and there is a sense that they belong to the entire community.
The bells of Berea are voices of history, voices of memory, voices of community. I look forward to hear them ringing in joy when the pandemic is over and the war in Europe is ended.-Dr. Edwin Broadhead
Dr. Clavere hopes some students will be interested in learning to play the carillon, even though there aren’t a lot of places to put the talent to use.
There’s something to be said for being the secret provider of a sound that carries for miles.
“Coming to the tower alone, it’s Biblical, like going up to the mountain,” Clavere said. “Coming up to this tower creates a sense of separation and the bells have a mysticism to themselves.”
Now you know: if you hear the bells of Berea, it’s a live performance, that takes place out of sight but never out of mind.