Cornell University Chimes: Music in the Air

The seconds tick away, the minute hand moves, and suddenly chimes emit from a bell tower: haunting tolls that work their way into music.  Whether you live in a large city or small town, you’re likely familiar with the sound.  Some people love them, some people hate them; but when they’re part of a community’s very being, they are both revered and loved.

If you have ever visited Ithaca, you may be familiar with the beloved tradition of chimes ringing from the John McGraw Tower at Cornell University.  If you have not visited Ithaca, you’re certainly in for a treat!  The Cornell Chimes have been an honored tradition since 1868, and continue to chime the hour to this day.  The bonus is that 15-minute bell concerts are played up to three times daily, depending on the time of year.  Hearing the chimes and the mini-concerts is an unforgettable experience, and is a perfect way to spend part of a day during your Upstate New York getaway at the Inn at Gothic Eves!

While some chimes are actually digital recordings blasted through speakers, the “bells” in the top of the John McGraw Tower are just that:  true-to-life bells.  21 of them, to be exact.  As the primary landmark of the University, the tower rises 173 feet into the air.  Not only is it the home of these historic musical instruments, but the tower also houses a museum and a practice room, among other things.  But the soaring notes ringing from the boughs are what usually draw attention to the imposing spire beside Uris Library.

And how are these soaring musical pieces played?  Would you believe that they are produced by the two hands and two feet of a human player known as a chimesmaster?  These professionals are truly dedicated to the beauty of the chimes, and a 10-week process is held each year to fill empty chimesmaster slots, involving mastering the “standards,” sight-reading unknown music, and being coached in a “concert” of music from which the new members of the ranks are selected.

It is truly amazing to consider how physically fit the chimesmasters are.  Even before their scheduled concert, they must climb the 161 steps up to the chimes room at the top of McGraw tower.  They must then manipulate the chimes by manipulating a series of levers with hands, feet, or both.  Think of it as a full-body aerobic workout for each song played.  Usually, different chimesmasters are responsible for playing each song during the 15-minute concerts.  Occasionally, an intricate duet is performed requiring the efforts of two players at once.

And what will you hear those chimes play?  You never can tell!  Classical compositions by the likes of Schubert, Bach, Beethoven, and Handel.  Traditional marches by Sousa.  Ragtime pieces by Scott Joplin, and swing from Glenn Miller.  Popular tunes that you may hear on the radio, and original pieces by the musical faculty.  Even favorites from the Beatles and television shows like The Muppets and Mickey Mouse.  The number of compositions available for play on the chimes is quickly approaching 3000!

For the most part, pieces can not be repeated if they have been played in the three weeks prior.  The ONLY exception to this rule are the three trademark tunes played each weekday:  the very challenging Jennie McGraw Rag begins each day, the Cornell Alma Mater is played each midday, and the very last song of the day is always the Cornell Evening Song.

If you love the sound of the chimes but want an even more “personal” experience, each days’ “concerts” are open to the general public!  Attending a concert does require that you be able to ascend the 161 stairs yourself, after which you can gather around the playing area and watch the chimesmasters at work.  During days when Cornell holds classes, the concerts are held at 7:45 am, 1:10 pm, and 6:00 pm from Monday through Friday.  On weekends, there are just two daily concerts at 10:40 am and 6:00 pm.  Concerts are scarce during University breaks including summer, Christmas Break, and Spring Break.  A full concert schedule can be found at the Cornell University Chimes website.

During your Finger Lakes vacation, why not make the short 30-minute trip to Ithaca and Cornell University to hear, and maybe witness, the heralding bells in the air?  A cozy room and friendly hospitality awaits you here in Trumansburg!

Visit before the end of March to take advantage of the Gothic Eves Birthday Special for discounted lodging and complementary use of the new hot tubs!

Innkeeper Rose Hilbert
POBox 95, 112 E. Main St.
Trumansburg, NY, 14886
1-800-387-7712 | 607-387-6033

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