The Bells of Cornell

May 13, 2015 4:03 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Cornell_University_from_McGraw_TowerRecently during my travels I had the pleasure of visiting Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. What a beautiful campus! It was a pleasure to see it, and to learn some of the history of that old university. Specifically, there were three things at Cornell that I enjoyed very much, and I’d love to share my thoughts with you.

cornell mcgraw tower picThe centerpiece of the campus must truly be McGraw Tower. The tower is more than 150 years old, and back in 1868 – just three years after the American Civil War ended – a series of nine bells was installed in the tower and played together for the first time. Over the years the bells have been expanded to 21, and in 1999 the bells were all tuned together for the first time in their history. With their size, and the musical range of 21 bells, the Cornell Chimes are one of the largest instruments of their kind in the entire world.

cornell chimes being played picThe chimes are played with foot petals, in a manner similar to a pipe organ, but they are played standing up. You might think these bells constitute a carillon, but there are two differences. A carillon must have 23 bells, where the Cornell Chimes have only 21, and a carillon must be played sitting down, unlike the standing play used in the Cornell Chimes.The larger bells are played using foot petals, and the smaller bells are played by hand. The chimes are suspended above the operator, out of sight, and the music is displayed in front of the “chimesmaster” as he or she performs. You can click here to see a video of the bells being played.

cornell chimes bells pickWhen I was there, five or six songs were played by a chimesmaster-in-training. This operator was being observed by several senior musicians, to make sure the chimes were played properly. After the initial set of songs two of the senior observers came forward and played songs themselves. It was quite magical, and a privilege to witness.

The tower houses more than just beautiful chimes by the way, including a museum, offices, and the occasional pigeon. The museum contains photographs and memorabilia depicting the history of the Cornell Chimes and McGraw Tower itself.

Next, I was able to view a little bit of Cornell’s Rare Book and Manuscript collection. It is housed in a football field-sized room at Cornell and, as a book lover myself, I was excited to be there. They have many books that are very rare, and some that are even unique to this collection. As an example, I was able to view a single page from an actual Gutenberg Bible! How amazing is that?

Dragon Day 2015.

Dragon Day 2015.

After all of that excitement, the visit was capped off with a Cornell tradition called Dragon Day. First year architecture students build a dragon costume though the year which then becomes the head of a parade, followed by other students dressed in all manner of different costumes. The dragon heads to the Arts Quad, where it does battle with a Phoenix, created by rival engineering students. I can say, having been there, it is a great big party for the students, and a great way to blow off steam.

Student Driving the Dragon

Student Driving the Dragon

All in all I was very impressed with the campus, and enjoyed my time there very much. If you ever get a chance to take a tour, do so. You won’t regret it!


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This post was written by Grace Fabian

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Grace Fabian
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