Arts & Leisure

George Matthew Jr. rings in carillon community

Carillonneur George Matthew Jr. animatedly plays the carillon atop the Middlebury College Chapel. Matthew has played the instrument, made up of 48 bells, since 1985 and has played a key role in expanding the carillon’s presence at Middlebury.
Independent photo/Amelia Seepersaud

During the school year, every day without fail, at 12:30 p.m., 88-year-old George Matthew Jr. ascends the 75-step staircase of the Middlebury College Chapel to play music that rings out for the entire campus to hear. He doesn’t tote his instrument along with him, like most other musicians would. His instrument is the carillon.

A carillon is a musical instrument played with a keyboard and is composed of at least 23 bronze bells. To make music, the carillonneur strikes the keys, and the wires connecting them triggers the corresponding keys to ring.

Matthew, a full-time carillonneur, has been playing the Middlebury carillon since 1985. He’s been mesmerized by the carillon since the age of 4 when his grandfather took him to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, where he “saw this very, very old man, almost as old as I am now, all dressed in white,” Matthew recalled. “And he was pounding away on this wonderful instrument full of bells. I thought that was the most glorious racket.”

Matthew, who is an accomplished musician known to play a wide array of instruments from the organ to the veena (a stringed Indian instrument) to the tuba to the carillon and more, didn’t start his career in music. Rather he graduated from Columbia University with a degree in chemistry and began his career as a chemist. He didn’t become a full-time carillonneur until years later once he knew he could make a living playing music. Always a musician, however, he had learned to play the carillon at age 26, having been taught by Dionisio Lind, whom he described as the first Black carillonneur. 

In 1984, while living in Stamford, Conn., Matthew got a call from Emory Fanning, chairman of Middlebury College’s music department, asking for a demonstration of the carillon. He met Fanning and Allan Dragone, the chairman of the colleges’ board of trustees, at the Stamford, Conn., church where Matthew rang the carillon bells. Upon meeting Fanning and Dragone, Matthew played the carillon for them and answered all the questions Dragone peppered him with about the inner workings of the complex instrument.

Prior to the meeting, Fanning had realized the college needed to improve the Chapel bells as student musicians would often get hand injuries due to the pressure it took to push the levers to ring the bells. So, Fanning reached out to then Middlebury College President Olin Robison asking if anything could be done to have the chime stand moved higher to make it easier and safer to play. 

At the same time, Dragone expressed interest in investing in the upkeep of the bells or new ones. After hearing about a set of 23-bells that Matthew was helping a church sell in Connecticut, it occurred to Dragone he could invest in an installation of a traditional carillon in Middlebury Chapel. The 48-bell carillon that now hangs at the top of the Chapel is a result of Dragone’s generosity.

Matthew, then in his early 50s, was soon hired and started playing the Middlebury carillon in 1985 and the full carillon, with the additional bells that Dragone had wanted installed, in 1986. 

Since that installation, there has been a diverse selection of music rung through the Middlebury campus each day. “I make good use of our outstanding library, adopting music from China, Korea, Scandinavia, Mexico and all over Europe, you name it, to the carillon,” Matthew said. 

He is intrigued by the universal nature of the carillon and emphasized that a school like Middlebury College truly encourages the diversity of music he tries to foster within the walls of the Chapel. 

THE 48 BELLS in the Middlebury Carillon hang in the belfry of the college chapel at the center of campus. The heaviest bell is 2,300 pounds, and each bell is connected by a wire to a keyboard from which the carillonneur plays the instrument.
Independent photo/Amelia Seepersaud

“This wonderful library. I can get hundreds of songs. That’s the kind of thing this college has. It’s almost too good to believe,” he said. 

Over the course of the almost four decades in which Matthew has been playing the Middlebury carillon, he has built a community of carillonneurs at the college. Each year he teaches a few students how to play the carillon to continue spreading his love for the instrument. This past year he taught four. 

Also, in the same year the full carillon was installed, Matthew established the summer carillon performance series. Every summer, carillonneurs from near and far come through Middlebury College’s instrument. On six Fridays in July and August, a noted carillonneur will sit before the carillon high above the Middlebury Chapel sanctuary at 6 p.m. and perform for anyone lucky enough to be on campus that evening. 

This summer’s carillon concert series has already seen performances on July 7 and 14, will skip this Friday, July 21, but it will continue the season with the following musicians:

• July 28, Simone Browne, assistant carillonneur at Riverside Church in New York City.

• Aug. 4, Amy Heebner ’93, city carillonneur of Albany, N.Y.

• Aug. 11, Charles Semowich, carillonneur at Riverside Church.

• Aug. 18 at 3 p.m., George Matthew Jr. will perform as a prelude to Language Schools Commencement.

Matthew emphasized the ways in which every carillonneur has their own unique touch when playing. He spoke of a carillonneur at the University of Michigan named Tiffany Eng, who has managed to write “beautiful pieces based on Native American music,” a type of music that has been particularly challenging to integrate into his own compositions. He expressed a sense of awe at the way different carillonneurs are able to bring something new and unique.

The summer series is an opportunity for Middlebury to showcase the richness in diversity the carillon offers. The carillon series includes mostly carillonneurs based out of various parts of New England and two Belgian-based carillonneurs. Each plays unique selections ranging from classical guitar pieces to Ukrainian hymns to Hispanic rhythms and more. 

Matthew also believes the carillon truly adds to the Middlebury campus experience. 

“I think it helps set an academic atmosphere,” he said. “There are 785 carillons in the world. There’s 178 in the United States; 71 of those are in colleges. Outside of the USA I only know of six college carillons. It’s becoming an American College instrument.”

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