Ring the bells! Jesse Ratcliff, a musician based in Maryland, will perform a special carillon concert at Hollins University at 12:30 p.m. May 3.
Hollins University is home to this large and rather unusual instrument. The carillon consists of 47 large bronze bells and a keyboard console and is the main fixture in the chapel’s bell tower. Though the bells once chimed frequently, they have mostly fallen silent in recent years.
The half-hour concert will feature a selection of music including folk tunes, Broadway favorites, and Disney classics, as well as selections composed specifically for the carillon. Guests are invited to relax on the chapel lawn, or in the surrounding area, to enjoy the melodies.
The music will be heard throughout the Hollins campus. The university’s landscape provides a unique listening experience. According to Judith Cline, a Hollins University professor and the chair of the music department, most existing carillons are located in city centers and are typically surrounded by tall buildings of brick, glass, and steel. Since Hollins University is surrounded by grassy hills and mountains, the bowl-shaped setting allows for better acoustics and a more intimate experience as chimes ring melodically across the campus.
“The bells at Hollins are beautiful. They have a lovely brilliance,” Ratcliff said.
The Hollins carillon was installed in 1959 as a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Toddie L. Wynne (Imogene Avis Young, Hollins 1917) in memory of Mrs. Wynne’s mother, Allie Nash Young, Hollins Class of 1890. The 47 bells are situated in the top of the chapel’s bell tower, which was built specifically to support the tremendous weight of the bells. According to university literature, the bells vary in weight from 22 pounds to 2,640 pounds. Of these, there are two pealing bells, which are played by pulling on a rope. The rest are played much like a percussion instrument by a bellmaster or carillonneur from a console in the tower.
The console itself is similar to a piano keyboard. The musician sits on a wooden bench, feet poised above a pedalboard. Instead of keys, the carillon features wooden batons that resemble broom handles in size and shape. The batons are gently struck with a loosely closed fist if a single note is required, or a fist with fingers opened into an L-shape if multiple notes are to be played at once, according to Ratcliff. As with most percussion instruments, the strength of each strike results in different sound qualities. The batons are directly connected to the bell clappers via a series of thin wires and levers. Once a baton is struck, the clapper chimes against the inside of the prescribed bell.
“I love the carillon. It is a public instrument that doesn’t require audience members to go to Broadway or a concert hall in order to hear the music. It is a large, unwieldy instrument that can make whisper-soft sounds. I play a few pieces that were composed for the carillon and that take in all its sonic idiosyncrasies. But, the carillon is fun because you aren’t required to play a dedicated set of music for it. If you can hum it, you can play it on the bells,” Ratcliff explained.
It can take years of training to learn how to play the carillon well. Ratcliff said that he first learned piano, then organ, and finally the carillon. Ratcliff was inspired by Tim Mainland, one of his music professors at Concord University, he said. Mainland had piqued his interest by telling Ratcliff that the carillon is a “microscopic niche instrument.”
Indeed, it is. There are around 180 carillons in the United States, making the instrument fairly uncommon. Of those, five are located in Virginia. The Hollins carillon is the only one in southwest Virginia. Others can be found in Luray, Charlottesville, Richmond and Arlington.
The Hollins bells were cast at the Paccard foundry in Annecy, France, in 1958. They were then shipped to the United States to be installed in the Roanoke bell tower, which was specifically engineered to contain the carillon. Each of the 47 bells is unique, and were custom-designed for the Hollins bell tower. A member of the Paccard family once told Cline that he had never before seen the design in their studio. “The mold was used and then it was broken,” Cline said.
The bells were each cast in a unique variation of an art deco design, many of which contain religious components like angels, wheat and chalices. The twelve largest bells are inscribed with unique quotes from literature, hymns and Hollins alumnae. The largest of the bells, the E Flat bourdon, features an imprint of the Hollins seal and is memorialized, “In memory of Allie Nash Young, Class of 1890.” The bells are cast in bronze, containing a combination of copper and tin.
Technicians from the Charleston, South Carolina, Paccard visited Roanoke in late April to provide maintenance to the Hollins carillon. One of the pealing bells needed a rope repair, which is in the process of being completed.
Hollins University students commented on social media platforms, excited that the bells were ringing once more. They had most recently pealed at noon each day during the 2021-2022 school year, but that gratitude ceremony had been placed on hold while the bells awaited repair.
The silence, however, will soon be broken. Ratcliff is including Hollins on his three-stop music tour. His other concerts will be in Luray, Virginia, and Concord, West Virginia.
Ratcliff taught music at Hollins University in 2010. During his time as part of the Hollins faculty, he played for convocations and the 2010 commencement. Now, he serves as the music director at All Saints Episcopal Church in Frederick, Maryland.
After being introduced to the carillon with Mainland at Concord, Ratcliff also received instruction from Jane Smith. He said that his early lessons were provided in the best way possible. With no professional carillonneur on staff, he said “the teachers hovered and gave suggestions. There wasn’t much technical instruction at all.” But, he added that Smith coached him the best way she could as a trained pianist.
For an instrument as uncommon as the carillon, Ratcliff is quite experienced. He attended the North American Carillon School, located in Springfield, Illinois, graduating in 2017. Ratcliff also studied with professional carillonneur Lisa Loney in Philadelphia, and he passed his exam to join the Guild of Carillonneurs of North America (GCNA) in 2019. The GCNA currently has around 400 members, according to their website.
Ratcliff is carrying on a tradition that dates back more than five centuries, according to the GCNA. Though carillons aren’t commonly found in the United States, there are many carillons scattered across Europe. This instrument evolved in Belgium and northern France. The first well-tuned carillon was installed in the Netherlands in 1652.
Medieval bells and carillons have a history of music, but they also have a history of warfare, according to Cline. “If there was an invading army, the villagers would go up into the bell tower and ring the bells like crazy to alert the countryside. Then, the villagers would remove the bells from the towers because the invading armies had a tendency to take the bells. They would melt them down for weaponry.” Many of the bells in Belgium, France and the Netherlands were stolen by the Germans during World War II, Cline said. She added that they were cataloged and later returned after the war had ended.
Medieval bells served as a news source for villagers. The bells were rung often to signal many things, according to Cline. They may have been rung for celebrations like weddings, for deaths, and eventually to chime the hour.
The bells at Hollins University will continue this tradition, ringing with music on May 3. There is, on average, just one carillon concert at Hollins per year. These concerts, among others, are funded by the Sallie Gray Shepherd Fund, which was established in 1948.
The concert is open to the general public. Attendees may bring chairs or picnic blankets and experience the performance from the Jessie Ball duPont Chapel lawn. “There is something on the program that everyone will get a kick out of,” Ratcliff said.