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Spotlight on the Bell Tower

The 161-foot tower and its 48-bell carillon take center stage at UCR. The campus’ first carillonneur recalls how it came to be.

by: Lowell Smith   (February 2000)

That summer of 1966, the fog hung on the ground like thick, fluffy cotton balls obscuring any sight of the campus.
It was the fog, reminiscent of an old fairy tale, that lent mystery and romance to my first morning on the UCR campus.

Suddenly the fog broke and I saw the tower like a gray skeleton. It appeared to be suspended from an invisible thread with its feet still hidden. At the top, I could see the bells hung in their rows. The encircling strains were still bare; the perforated skin had yet to be hung. I thought of how that tower might become a living symbol of this young, still forming campus.

About 10 years before, a small group of visionaries had laid the foundations of a new college on the campus of UCR. I had been told that those early idealists had hoped to make UCR a Swarthmore-of-the-West. In those founding days, Riverside students spent their time in study and took pride in the fact that the only athletic team they could beat was Cal Tech.

In 1966, the first wave of “baby boomers” was about to pressure the campus. The rumblings of Vietnam were heard in the distance and articles in the campus newspaper decried the apathy of the student body. It was into this evolution of change that I had been invited to join the music faculty as the university carillonneur.

The 161-foot tower had been designed to embody several ideals: a beautiful architectural structure, a visual focal point for the campus, a rallying place for student life and an instrument to fill the campus community with music. Chancellor Ivan Hinderaker had expressed the wish that it “... become the symbol of the heart of a great university.”

It was my hope that through the sight and sound of the tower, a time would come that whenever anyone who had visited the Riverside campus heard bells, they would think of UCR.

The tower had been an anonymous gift to the campus community. The donors wanted to symbolize community interest and support rather than to create a memorial to themselves.
William Reynolds, then chairman of the music department, was asked to act as advisor in choosing a suitable carillon. After several months of study, he submitted a report to the chancellor recommending the Paccard instrument that is now in the tower.
Justin Kramer was engaged as an acoustical expert to examine, along with Reynolds, the 30,000-pound carillon that had been created for UCR. On June 24, 1966, the 48 bells were lifted into place. The largest bell, the bourdon, weighs 5,091 pounds. It has the original Latin form of the university seal as its decoration and bears the inscription “University Centennial Bell 1868-1968.

Although there were many tales of students racing up the unguarded stairs during the night, the very thought of the climb brought chills to me. In addition, the bells had not all been attached to the keyboard. As I planned and practiced on the dummy keyboard located on the ground, I imagined the sounds I hoped to send across the campus.

Many challenges stood in the way of that first concert.

The first morning the lights were lit to check the wiring, I realized that the tubes fastened to the bottom of the stairs would not create the classic look that is now familiar. The workmen assured me that I was wrong and that when the tower was lit at night, it would look just like the model. The tower was designed to be an evenly lit shaft, which would embody the motto “Fiat Lux,” -- Latin for “Let there be light” and the motto of the UC system. That evening, when the lights came on, there was a sigh of disappointment from the small group standing below. A design error had been made. The anonymous donor agreed that we should spend the money to make it right.

On the evening of that first lighting, a number of us went to the top of the tower to see the campus and the city below. The night was clear, and the city lights surrounded us. I was asked to play something. I looked at the keyboard and could see that quite a number of bells had not yet been connected. I hesitated because I could not think of any music that did not need those unhooked notes. The group insisted, so I offered to play a folk tune if they would imagine each missed note. They agreed and I played a ragged version of “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies ...”

It seemed almost too soon when Oct. 2, the day of the dedication, arrived. I had decided to follow the advice of one of my early music teachers: “Play something simple enough that you feel under control, but flashy enough to impress your audience.”

I chose a prelude by Jef van Hoof. It had single line melodies, trills, chromatic runs and all the devices that composers from 1925 liked to use. It was my sense, as I looked to the ground after the piece, that many could not believe what they had heard. They were expecting bells being tolled in a church steeple rather than music.

I chose to end with the “Trumpet Voluntary” by Jeremiah Clarke. By the end of the piece, I felt as if I was off the bench and dancing on the keys. As the final crashing sounds died away, I could hear the applause below, enough to warrant an encore. My memory is that I played a piece titled “Avondje” -- Little Evening Piece. I had composed it to be used as a closing signature for all the evening recitals. It allowed me to use the bottom bell and the topmost bell. The bourdon bell was barely touched so it was almost inaudible and the last note was the soft, silvery ring of the smallest bell in the instrument. Its sound disappeared, absorbed into the early evening calm. It was my sense that the carillon had begun the journey into the heart of UCR.

My memories of the tower don’t end on that day. Soon after our first concert it was reported that the chancellor from Santa Barbara declared that he had to have a tower and a carillon that was taller and bigger than Riverside’s. Planning soon began for the communications building on the Santa Barbara campus that was both taller (192 feet tall) and bigger (by two small bells).

Soon, we had students studying to play the instrument. Some of these students made reputations as carillonneurs -- Margo Halsted (‘73 M.A.), who is now at the University of Michigan and Jeff Bossin (‘72), who played a carillon in Berlin. Some students went to the Dutch Carillon School and became finished players. Others studied for several quarters to satisfy their curiosity and confront an intellectual challenge. I fondly remember Lucy Duchene, a mathematics student who became quiet skilled. She went on to teach math, but played everywhere she could find an instrument.

The tower was also the subject of a number of pranks. One morning, I was just beginning to teach a large music class when I was told that someone “had bricked up the tower.” I could not imagine what that meant. As soon as class was out I went to the base of the tower, where several UCR police stood.

When I saw the handiwork, I wanted to laugh even though it was probably not appropriate. During the night, someone had loaded wheelbarrows of brick from a work site on the south side of the library. They had rolled each load to the entry gates of the tower, where they proceeded to lay two parallel courses of brick, kept solid by bricks that tied across from one course to the next. The pattern moved from layer to layer to make a decorative design that appeared to have been laid out by a true artisan. This careful work must have taken hours, unobserved by the campus patrols. I still treasure the memory of the police consternation and the photo that appeared in the paper.

For 11 years, I was privileged to be UCR’s carillionneur. The thought of the tower brings back the ringing in of the new year, the lessons taught at 5 p.m., the noon time concert for sun-loving students, the evening concerts with the guests lazing on the lawns, the student visitors watching with wide eyes, and even a rubber bat, hung by an unknown person, that never failed to bring a bats-in-the-belfry comment from the elderly ladies who visited on weekends.
Each time I glance at the woodcut of the tower that currently hangs in my office, I am reminded of this symbol for the heart of a great university.

Lowell Smith was the University Carillonneur at UCR from 1966 to 1977. He is now Director of Property Services for the Ottumwa, Iowa School District. He remains active in music with occasional performances on a carillon in Des Moines, Iowa.

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