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‘The bells toll for thee’

Music rings through downtown Minneapolis on holidays thanks to talented musicians

Clarance Smith plays the bells that ring out from the tower at Minneapolis City Hall. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Every summer Friday (and occasional secular and sacred holidays) at noon, the bells in the bell tower at Minneapolis’ City Hall ring out an hour-long concert. One might cynically assume that that it is a pre-programmed package creating the beautiful sound. But, no, 14 volunteer carillonneurs produce the notes on a 15-note, octave-and-a-fifth keyboard played in the building’s rotunda.
On Maundy Thursday, Clarance Smith, former board chair of the National Lutheran Choir, selected a variety of hymns for the Lenten season and the Triduum to play on the keyboard. (Smith was playing hymns from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the most recent ELCA hymnal, often referred to as the “cranberry hymnal.”)
Shoppers and downtown employees were, perhaps unwittingly, treated to a concert of hymns like #336, “Lamb of God”; #349, “Ah, Holy Jesus”; #357, “Lamb of God, Pure and Sinless”; and #359, “Where Charity and Love Prevail.”
Smith first heard about the carillon bells in a Barbara Flanagan column in the StarTribune. The columnist was writing about the work of the Tower Bell Foundation and its effort to raise money for the maintenance of the tower. She mentioned the name of Tony Hill, a foundation board member.
Hill invited Smith to come by City Hall for an orientation to the keyboard. After a quick run-through, and a visit to the tower to see the massive bells, Hill informed Smith, “You’re a pro,” and put him in the rotation of carillonneurs.

A very short keyboard

Mike Mikulay, treasurer and back-up accompanist at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Minnetonka, Minnesota, also read the Flanagan column. Like Smith, he contacted Hill and became part of the rotation.
“I worked downtown for 18 years and listened to the bells,” Mikulay said. “And now that I don’t work there anymore — I’m an IT specialist for United Health Care now — I go downtown to play.”

Sitting in the Minneapolis City Hall rotunda, Clarance Smith plays a keyboard that electronically rings the bells in the building’s bell tower. Smith chose selections from the ELCA hymnal. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Mikulay remembers how cold it was during his trip up to the bells; he could see ice on the outer bells. He also said it was loud, really loud.
While the bells are now operated electronically, according to Mikulay, the bells were originally activated by pulling ropes.
“A couple of the keys on the keyboard don’t work” Mikulay said, “so sometimes I have to play a note that doesn’t work.” The keyboard includes 12 white keys, but only three of the six black keys work, since there are only 15 bells in the tower.
“It helps to be able to transpose on sight,” explained Smith. That way he finds a key for hymns that he wants to play but that won’t work because of the limited keyboard.
The largest bell is over 7,300 pounds; the smallest is 285 pounds. The oldest bell dates back to 1895, according to the foundation’s website: The original bells “were cast by the Meneely [Bell] Company of Troy, New York, in 1895 and 1924. A 15th bell was cast in 1972 by the Petit & Fritzen [Bellfoundry] of Aarle-Rixtel, Netherlands, and installed by the Verdin Co. of Cincinnati.”
The website also tells an interesting story about an early carillonneur: “Edward Auld played the bells of Minneapolis City Hall-Hennepin County Courthouse from 1924, when he was 12, until he became too infirm to continue playing in 2000, more than 75 years later.
“His father, Hank Auld played the bells from 1912 until his death in 1969. Edward was still scheduled to do a dozen concerts a year as recently as 1999. … Edward’s final performance was on February 21, 2000, for Washington’s Birthday. Edward died on January 25, 2001, about a month after the Tower Bell Foundation (then known as City Hall Carillon Committee) announced his retirement.”

Ringing in special days

The bells ring on a number of holidays, including Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve, Martin Luther King Holiday, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Passover, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.
When asked about the bells being played on religious holidays, Smith suggested that because there is no text, only music, may make playing on sacred holidays permissible.
Smith also enjoys those Friday afternoon concerts. “People just come and hang out over their lunch breaks. There’s something special about that.”

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