Campanile history still rings true today

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Lizzy Klingen/Staff

In 1903, the university hired John Galen Howard as a supervising architect, charging him with designing a master plan. He is responsible for many of the most beautiful buildings on campus, including Memorial Stadium, Doe Library, the Greek Theatre, California Hall and the Hearst Mining Building. There are many, many more. Howard’s crowning achievement was Sather Tower. In 1911, Jane Krom Sather gave funds to construct a tower with bells. She wanted to give, she said, “something others might overlook.”

The original 12 bells were cast in 1914-15 by Taylor’s Bell Foundry of Loughborough, England. They were first played Nov. 3, 1917, and their music was joined by the factory whistles of West Berkeley. Those original bells are still played today. Since then, the bells have been an integral part of campus life, shared by students, faculty, staff and visitors alike. For many, the bells ringing from Sather Tower serve as the salient memory of their time at UC Berkeley.

The class of 1928, wanting to give a fitting 50th-anniversary gift to the university, decided to enlarge the small chime with “a few extra bells” in order to be able to play such common tunes as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Within a few days they had raised enough funds to enlarge the 12-bell chime into a concert carillon of 48 bells.

Bells have a way of being central to the communities they serve. At UC Berkeley, the tradition of playing them three times per day began in the 1920s. Among the important bell players at UC Berkeley was Margaret Murdock, who played the bells for 59 years. She was given the Berkeley Citation — the forerunner of the Berkeley Medal — and the steps on the west side of the tower, facing the Golden Gate, are dedicated to her.

In 1983, Jerry and Evelyn Chambers funded a second enlargement of the instrument — this time to 61 bells, the instrument we have today. The Chambers gift also bestowed a chair in music, renovation of two floors of the tower and an endowment to fund an entire carillon program, including a full-time university carillonist position. Since then, the campus has had three carillonists: Ronald Barnes (1982-1995), Geert D’hollander (1997-1998) and myself, Jeff Davis. The campus also has a fine carillon library and an active instructional program in carillon.

A number of UC Berkeley students have gone on to play professionally throughout the world. A particularly proud moment for the carillon program happened this past year, when former student Brian Tang, now an associate carillonist, placed second in the Queen Fabiola Competition in Belgium. This is the ultimate playing competition in the carillon world, and Brian’s win raised the place of UC Berkeley even higher internationally.

We are fortunate to have practice keyboards in the tower so as not to annoy our neighbors when practicing. Like all musical instruments, our carillon and our practice instruments are delicate — even if large — and constantly in need of maintenance. Adding to our fortune at UC Berkeley is having a carillon maintenance person on our staff.

Carillons, in general, are exposed to the elements. Our carillon, directly across from the Golden Gate, is particularly exposed to constant salt air, moisture, wind and changes in temperature. These natural forces hasten deterioration. While the bells themselves are fine, the other parts are not. Generally, a carillon transmission mechanism — the parts that connect the keyboard to the bell — has an average life of about 25 years. During that time, they must be maintained, of course, but eventually they begin to fail. At UC Berkeley, we add to that the intense battering of the environment, and consequently, we have an instrument now more than 30 years of age, which is failing and in need of serious renovation.

The original transmission mechanism was not the most responsive to the musician nor easy to maintain. Since the time of Ronald Barnes, there has been talk of replacing the troublesome mechanism with one that is easy to maintain and, as Barnes described it, “responds to every flutter of the wrist.” In addition, we need to replace the worn clappers, fabricate new keyboards using world standard dimensions and, to top it off, move our spectacular treble bells to the top of the instrument, where they will sound clearly instead of being buried behind tons of larger bells. It’s a tall order, with an estimated cost of $1 million, but if we want to continue to enjoy the music of the bells and our prominence in the world as a center for the carillon, we must perforce do it.
This centennial year is a good time for all of us to consider how much the tower and the bells mean to us and to give generously to its needs. Jane Sather and John Galen Howard left us a spectacular legacy. It is up to us to make certain it endures.

Jeff Davis is the university carillonist for UC Berkeley’s Sather Tower.

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