By Theo Evans
On January 1, 1949, then-Vice-Chancellor of Sewanee Dr. H. M. Grass sent a letter to Schulmerich Electronics to inquire about the purchase of a new instrument for the final stage of construction of All Saints’ Chapel. Weighing in at 23 tons and standing at 134 feet tall, the Leonidas Memorial Carillon is “a world-class instrument,” says Raymond Gotko, the University Carillonneur. The carillon is played with a keyboard made of wooden batons that rings one of 56 bronze- and tin-cast bells. The smallest of the bells weighs 22 pounds, while the largest is 7,500 pounds. The carillon cost $63,000 dollars in 1958, or approximately $520,000 dollars in 2016, to build and was dedicated in 1958.
For some perspective on how phenomenal the carillon at The University of the South is, the Harkness Tower carillon at Yale is only 54 bells. Traditionally, the University Carillonneur and a Guild of Carillonneurs made up of students, run by students and trained by students, play the carillon. The process of joining a guild is called a “heeling.” This heeling process is highly competitive: there are usually only eight weeks to demonstrate mastery of the carillon to guild leaders. At Yale last year, of the 80 students who undertook the heeling, 21 were accepted. The members of the guild rotate playing so that there is music at sunrise, noon, and sunset every day.
Meanwhile, in Sewanee, currently there are five qualified carillonneurs and no official Guild of Carillonneurs. In short, Sewanee has a carillon tower with two more bells than Yale’s tower has but less than a fifth of the qualified players. When asked about the current state of Sewanee’s carillonneurs, Gotko said, “There is no reason with people of your caliber to not play this world-class instrument. There are larger ones [carillons] in the world, but ours is world-class in range, in quality of sound, and in stability of construction.” A Sewanee guild of Carillonneurs would be about 10 to 15 members with a faculty advisor that would probably be the University Carillonneur, and they would play every day in the morning, at noon, and in the evening.
Vice-Chancellor McCardell and the Sewanee Administration have challenged the entire University to become a “stronger, truer Sewanee.” Sewanee is a world-class university, and one area of improvement is apparent in the fact that a world-class instrument meant to ring across the Domain from the heart of central campus is silent. Sewanee has a world-class carillon; it should have the world-class carillonneurs to match.