I see Beaumont Tower every day, whether it’s walking to class or buying groceries. It is the landmark of the university, but I didn’t know anything about it until recently. I had always assumed that the music coming out of the Tower was something classical and pre-recorded. And then one day I was leaving the library, I heard the main theme to The Godfather playing, and decided I had to get to the bottom of it. What was going on up there?
After the first instructional building on campus, College Hall, collapsed in 1918, plans were made to fill Campus Circle with new buildings. An artillery garage where Army trucks were stored, was then built on the ruins of College Hall. But MSU alumni campaigned to preserve Campus Circle, tear down the artillery garage and provide a monument for College Hall. John W. Beaumont, who had graduated from MSU in 1882, presented a plan to replace the garage with a tower that would serve as a symbol of the university’s history, and as a defense of further construction in Campus Circle.
The Tower was built in 1928 with 10 bells, and another 13 added in 1935, operated by an instrument called a carillon at the top. The carillon, pronounced “carol on,” is a musical instrument that operates somewhat like piano, but instead of keys, consists of long wooden pegs which the carillonneur plays mostly by striking with their fists, but with others operated by their feet. Renovated in 1996 after falling into disrepair 10 years earlier, the MSU carillon, one of only 180 in North America, now consists of 49 bells weighing between 15 pounds and 2.5 tons, giving it a two-octave range.
Dr. Raymond McLellan has been University Carillonneur since 1997, and his office is halfway up the Tower. He plays the carillon on the days in which it is open to students.
“I’d like everybody who goes to school here to come up at least once,” he said.
The bells never go out of tune, but the wires change length with temperature, and must be adjusted continuously with the changing weather. Not everything adapts well to the carillon, but that doesn’t stop the carillonneurs from keeping the playlist fresh.
“We play all sorts of things,” McLellan said. In one of his 30-minute performances at noon, he might play music from Mozart, the MSU fight song and some hits from the 60s. “But you can’t keep everyone happy,” he added. Recently, the carillonneur played, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and a local church complained, claiming that they had been playing the song first.
“One thing students should know is that you don’t have to be a music student to play the carillon.” McLellan continued. Students of mathematics and the College of Law play the carillon on occasion. Any student who can play the piano can take free lessons at MSU for the carillon. The College of Music holds auditions every semester for students who want to be carillonneurs.
The chimes that play every 15 minutes, along with MSU Shadows, are on a timer, but every time you hear other music from the Tower, it is being played live, either by McLellan or a student. Because of the uniqueness of the carillon, music needs to be specially written or adapted for it, but many students are determined to add music that they are passionate about alongside the classics. Newer songs that have been played from the Tower consist of anything from “Stairway to Heaven” to the theme from Harry Potter.
It’s not just MSU students and faculty that get to listen to the Tower either. During the summer, the Annual Muelder Summer Carillon Series, put together by Dr. Milton Muelder as a dedication to his wife, whom he met while they were students at MSU, happens. During the series, guest carillonneurs from as far away as the Netherlands play the instrument once a week in the evenings. With campus free of students, people bring children and lawn chairs to have picnics and listen to the music.
The times people can visit Beaumont during the semester are posted by the Tower door, and during that time, anyone is free to make the 73-stair climb to the top of the Tower, where there are chairs that listeners can sit to watch McLellan play. The bravest of students can also climb the last and steepest set of stairs to the level above the carillon into the chamber tightly housing all 49 bells. For anyone who’s ever wanted to experience Mozart at a chest vibrating level, you can even watch the bells while they’re being played. It’s not just students who can visit. Many alumni stop by, some bringing their children, and at times entire families make it a point to see the carillon in action. There is even a guest book, maintained for years, for all the visitors to sign.
So next time you’re in that part of campus, stop by, find out what day of the week it’s open that semester and walk on up. You can experience a part of MSU culture and history, and cross one more thing off your college bucket list while you’re at it. Who knows, maybe you’ll be coming back years down the line for a dose of nostalgia too.
For more on the history of Beaumont Tower and the carillon, as well as information on how to receive lessons, audition and set up tours, you can visit music.msu.edu/carillon or email Dr. McLellan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taylor Owens is a senior majoring in English and creative writing. He enjoys gaming, sixties movies and trying to dress like someone who reads Dostoevsky. He’d like to make some sort of a living out of writing novels.
Tags: September 2016