The Harkness Chimes at Yale

Ah! When I hear those bells, I feel nostalgic for my college days! Or when I hear that glee club sing or marching band play! And THAT, my friends, is my dissertation in a nutshell. I’m sure I’ll come back to the topic of bells and nostalgia more on this blog.

As part of my dissertation research in the Yale archives, I found a small notecard for holiday greetings that had a text meant to be sung to the famous melody from the “Largo” movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” This melody, not coincidentally, was heard from the Harkness Memorial Chime on Yale’s campus every day at noon in the early to mid-twentieth century. Can you taste the sentimentality dripping off of these lyrics?

“The Harkness Chimes”
Lyrics by Philip E. Browning

Hail to thee, dear old Yale,
Mother of us all;
Far or near though we be
Still we hear thy call.
‘Neath they elms’ friendly shade,
far in alien climes,
we thy sons hear thy voice
In the campus chimes:

“Seek ye here Light and Truth,
Nurture soul and mind,
Dedicate here your youth,
Learn to serve mankind.”

Age comes on, cares oppress,
Other mem’ries fail;
Lessons learned at thy feet
Linger, Mother Yale.
In our hearts, still enshrined,
youth eternal dwells
Stirred anew by thy voice
in the campus bells:

“Seek ye here Light and Truth,
Nurture soul and mind,
Dedicate here your youth,
Learn to serve mankind.”

I’m curious to hear about the reactions of Yale students and alumni—nostalgia? Affection? Neutral? Something else?

The sentimental touches in the lyrics help foster a sense of nostalgia in its target audience of the notecard—alumni. Yale is “Mother Yale” and the voice of Yale is embodied in the sound of the bells. Youth itself is “stirred anew by thy voice/in the campus bells.” If that’s not a powerful role for the bells, I’m not sure what is.

And don’t forget about the music. It too is ripe for sentimental exploitation. The slow melody is neatly divided into short phrases with mostly step-wise motion. The question-and-answer phrase structure and predictable rhythm also help make this melody easy to sing. So–easy to sing, check! What else makes it ripe for sentimental exploitation? The pentatonic melody. Much has been written by our musicology friends about Westerners equating pentatonic melodies with folk songs or non-Western music. This particular melody is also known as the spiritual “Goin’ Home,” but it’s not clear which came first—this Largo theme or the spiritual.* Folk songs suggest an affection for times gone and past, so this tune itself could prime alumni for thinking about Yale with nostalgia.

The broad message of Yale would be considered a fairly standard one for American universities today: educate yourselves and use it to better the lot of everyone else. At the time, though, this song strategically tied together the concerns of two competing higher education models, the college vs. the university. The college model aimed to create an intimate community among its students and faculty, which the sentimentality of the lyrics and music aim to foster here, while the university model aimed to expand knowledge to better society beyond the university walls. Generalizations, of course, but you get the idea.

* Richard Taruskin, The Nineteenth Century, vol. 3 of The Oxford History of Western Music, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, 765-66.

6 Replies to “The Harkness Chimes at Yale”

  1. Thanks for bringing up that fascinating piece of ephemera, Kim! As a Yale alum, carillonneur, and musicologist, I experienced it all ways — a tug of the heartstrings, pride that our playing is presumed to have such a central place in alumni feelings about Yale, and a critical awareness of the card’s strategic evocation of the bells as a shortcut to sentimentality about college. The latter makes me slightly resentful — I’d like to keep my idea of the repertoire I played, which was as virtuoso as I could manage at the time, separate from the simplified sonic evocations in which the carillon is usually evoked in language (as tolling bells, melodic chimes, etc.). (And yes, I recognize that this greeting card predates the expansion of the Harkness chimes to a carillon.) As carillonneurs, we’re socialized to distinguish ourselves as more sophisticated than other types of bell players and to constantly police that boundary between the carillon and chime-type instruments. I oppose that policing, but when I encounter similar descriptions that simplify carillon music, I do feel that my labor as a musician isn’t being recognized by virtue of it being invisible to the audience.

    I’m also quite entertained that poets attribute such specific messages to bells, which offer no semantic content yet are throughout the 19th and 20th centuries described as “voices.” The anatomy of bells even attributes a “mouth,” “lip,” and “tongue” to them if I recall correctly. So I was quite entertained to see four full lines of poetry attributed repeatedly to our Taylor bells. 🙂 Interestingly, it’s a good message for the Ivy Leagues these days (cf. Yale professor Deresiewicz’s controversial “Excellent Sheep”).

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  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Tiffany! You bring up a topic that I’m fascinated by and will have to explore in another blog post. It is really interesting how contemporary carillonneurs are adamant as positioning themselves as fully-fledged musicians, not just someone who plunks out pretty tunes on the bells. Yet, the truth is that the value of the bells’ music often seems to lie in their ability to transport someone to a particular time and place, which seems to be done more easily through tunes like the one above–instantly recognizable, singable–and often not virtuosic. This would seem to create tension in the carillonneur community. Carillonneurs desire to reach and showcase the highest levels of musicianship on the instrument, while amateur listeners may be more interested in hearing music that is familiar and tied to that institution and/or location. Anyway, I don’t want to dig myself too deep here without some careful thinking, but those are my thoughts now.

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    1. Kim, you make a really good point about the tension between the desired effect of the carillon for carillonneurs vs. the general public, autonomous art vs. simplicity and nostalgia. I get the sense that American carillonneurs are more concerned about achieving the status of autonomous art for the carillon than our European counterparts, ironically because the carillon in Europe is already considered a “carillon art” (which I find a strange term, as we don’t often talk about say, the “piano art”), and thus playing simple or popular music on it doesn’t appear to endanger that status. I look forward to your post about the topic.

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