Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, June 12, 2002

Hoover restoration breathes new life into once 'jangly' carillon

BY BARBARA PALMER

The return of the newly restored carillon to the top of Hoover Tower means the resumption of a 60-year tradition of serenading new graduates with the pealing of thousand-pound bronze bells.

And for university carillonneur Timothy Zerlang, it means that after this weekend, the calluses on the sides of his hands will be back.

Zerlang, a lecturer in the Department of Music, will play for the Baccalaureate ceremony Saturday morning and again on Sunday as graduates leave the stadium. Each time, it will be an athletic tour de force as well as a musical one. To play the carillon's 48 bronze bells, Zerlang strikes a row of handles on a keyboard with his fists and a row of pedals with his feet. The length of the oak keyboard, which looks a little like an organ keyboard but is bigger, demands that Zerlang twist and stretch like a contortionist. It can look a little bit like a high-speed, one-person game of Twister.

Even so, the Belgian-made carillon is far easier to play now than it was before it underwent a two-year restoration at the Royal Eijsbouts foundry in the Netherlands -- despite the fact that the makeover added 13 new bells including one that weighs 2.5 tons, Zerlang said. The university carillonneur since 1991, Zerlang used to have to pound so hard on the old keyboard, he raised blisters and bloodied the sides of his hands. The restored carillon "is a huge improvement," he said.

Timothy Zerlang, a lecturer in the Department of Music and the university carillonneur since 1991, made adjustments to the recently refurbished carillon in Hoover Tower. The Belgian-made bells are far easier to play now that they have undergone a two-year restoration at the Royal Eijsbouts foundry in the Netherlands. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Almost everything about the 63-year-old carillon was improved during the restoration process, which replaced 11 of the old bells with newly cast bells. Nine new large bells and four small bells were added to increase the carillon's range to four octaves, along with a new keyboard and a new mechanism that makes the keyboard easier to play.

With its expanded range and bells tuned to concert pitch, the carillon is now a concert-quality instrument, as fine as any in the country, said Margo Halsted, an alumna and associate carillonneur at Stanford from 1967 to 1977. Now a professor of music at the University of Michigan, where she directs the country's only master's program for the carillon, Halsted was a volunteer consultant on the restoration project. "Before it just played notes; now it makes beautiful music."

The carillon, which originally had 35 bells, was cast for the Belgian Pavilion at the 1939-40 World's Fair. After the Nazis invaded Belgium, the bells stayed in the United States and were bought by the Belgian-American Education Foundation. The foundation gave the carillon to the Hoover Institution in appreciation for Herbert Hoover's famine relief efforts during and after World War I.

The carillon's bells, which were connected to an automatic drum player that looks like an oversized music box player, were set to play twice a day, at noon and 5 p.m. The university's first carillonneur, James Lawson, played concerts and at Commencement and marked more somber occasions as well. On Dec. 7, 1941, Lawson went to the tower and played "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" once through. (For his services as carillonneur, Lawson received no payment but was told he could have as many oranges as he wanted from campus trees.)

Hoover Tower's carillon bells returned from the Netherlands, where they were restored. The project was completed in March. Courtesy of Craig Snarr

Although the carillon's bells became a treasured part of Stanford life, they never were quite in tune. Elena Danielson, associate director of the Hoover Institution, charitably describes the bells that hung in the Hoover Tower before the restoration as "cheerful, but kind of jangly." Halsted is more blunt. "It was terrible," she said. "You played the octaves and it hurt."

The first person to suggest officially that the bells could use a little tuning had been Ralph Lutz, the former Hoover Library director, who made the observation in 1943. James B. Angell, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering who served as carillonneur for 31 years, also submitted a proposal that the carillon be tuned and upgraded in 1971. Tuning the bells is an expensive process that requires that the interiors of the bells be precisely lathed. The request was denied, in favor of improvements to faculty salaries and classrooms, Angell said. Looking back, "I can't disagree with the decision to improve the class environment, rather than to have the carillon amplified."

The current restoration effort can be traced back to 1989, when Angell was on the 13th floor of the Hoover Tower -- where the old carillon keyboard resided -- getting ready to play a concert for a small group.

"I was changing my shoes and the tower began moving," Angell recalled. The Loma Prieta earthquake shook the books that lined the walls onto the floor in huge heaps. "I got a tremendous shot of adrenaline," Angell said. "I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience."

As soon as the building stopped shaking and he saw that everyone was all right, Angell said he couldn't resist climbing over a pile of books to the keyboard. He played a scrap of a Flemish dance, his signature tune, to see if the carillon was all right. "It was working fine. I was about to say, 'I'm ready to go on with the program,' but I took one look at the faces around me." They were ready to leave, he said.

The earthquake spared the carillon, but not the automatic drum player -- the only one of its kind in North America. The player, big enough for a person to crawl inside, is regulated by weights like a grandfather clock. The motion of the earthquake slipped the bicycle chain that held the weights out of its channel and the next time the player started to rotate, the mechanism jammed.

The automatic player was silenced, but in 1996, an engineering graduate student named Nick Merz became intrigued with the mechanism, Danielson said. Merz's interest in the player gave the idea of restoring the carillon momentum, she said. And there was money available this time. Funds for the project came from the Herbert Hoover Foundation, Herbert Hoover II and Meredith Hoover, L. W. "Bill" Lane and Jean Lane, and the Music Box Society, as well as the President's Fund.

Halsted, who along with Zerlang learned to play the carillon from Angell, was a key component in the process, her former teacher said. "She made sure we did everything right the first time."

One of the big changes made to the carillon was moving the position of the keyboard from the dim 13th floor -- where a bare lightbulb hung overhead -- to an enclosure on the viewing platform near the very top of Hoover Tower.

Zerlang now has a sweeping view of the foothills and the bay as he plays. Visitors to the platform can now see the keyboard when Zerlang isn't playing, but the bells are so loud the platform is closed during concerts. (Zerlang's ears are protected by the enclosure.)

The music the carillon bells make is "a block of sound like a living thing," said Zerlang, who also plays piano and organ. "It just unleashes something. Once you play it, you can't stop it."

Halsted is working with Zerlang to select a pair of tunes to put on the automatic drum player later this summer so the carillon will again be heard twice a day. "It has to be something people won't get too tired of," Zerlang said.

Although Angell waited more than 30 years to see improvements he suggested become reality, he doesn't plan to play the restored carillon. He hasn't touched the instrument for more than a decade and no longer has command of "a whole bunch of stunts that were second nature to me."

"I can listen," he said. The carillon will be formally dedicated on July 17 with events including a sunset concert.

Carillonneur Timothy Zerlang tested the recently refurbished Hoover Tower carillon. After renovations, the mechanism was moved from the dim 13th floor to an enclosure on the tower's viewing platform. Photo: L.A. Cicero