Ring in the New Year with the PSO’s Deagan Tower Chimes

By Jack Howell

“What is tone color?” my daughter asked in all innocence as I tried to explain that the PSO’s tower chimes, huge tubular bells that once hung in a church steeple, were used for their tone color. Yes, the same pitches could be (and in most cases are) played by much smaller chimes that are just a few feet long, weigh a few pounds and are easily moved by one human. The ones that are up to 14 feet long, weigh several hundred pounds and require a chain hoist to lift sound different. It is, as I tried to explain, a matter of tone color. If you take the same pitch sung by a man at the top of his range and by a woman at the bottom of hers, it will have a different type of sound, which is what musicians mean by “color.”

The same applies to orchestral instruments — a cello in its extreme upper register can play pitches that could also be played by a violin, but differences in the size of the instrument, the length, thickness and tension of the string, create a much different sound, or color. Differences in tone between musicians on the same instrument may be described in terms of color, and a single musician will vary tone color during a piece, even during a phrase, as an expressive device, just as the color of a person’s voice tells us if he or she is happy, or angry, or embarrassed. (Further discussion of color in music turned into a separate article which you can read here.)

Specifying and blending these colors into orchestration is the art of the composer, just as interpreting and balancing them is the art of the conductor and creating them is the art of the performer. Honoring the composer’s intentions is the reason the PSO owns a number of unusual instruments, many of them members of the percussion family. There are instruments whose tone color is so distinctive that they are like a rare spice in cooking — a little goes a long way, but the dish isn’t what it’s supposed to be without it. A paella without saffron just wouldn’t be the same.

Which is why Principal Percussionist Andy Reamer was excited when he learned that a set of 20 Deagan tower chimes was available for sale in Rockford, Illinois. The chimes, installed in the Bethesda Evangelical Covenant Church in 1928, were exactly the sort of instrument that Mahler specified for his ResurrectionSymphony, and that he bought personally for performances of the work. There is a richness, power, and complexity to the sound of a massive chime that has no substitute. 

It was serendipitous that these chimes came along just in time for the PSO’s 2017 performance of Mahler’s Resurrection, but it was nip and tuck, as Reamer explains: “We had to move quickly because the church needed a new roof and they where going to scrap the chimes for the money.” The 2017 saga of the chimes being dug out, transported by UHaul truck, and laboriously divested of nearly a century’s worth of pigeon droppings can be read here.

Since their acquisition, the chimes have lent their gravity to a number of musical works, and will be heard again this coming week in performances of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloute(The Sunken Cathedral) and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. While both famously coloristic and iconic works are worth hearing simply because they are, well, iconic and famously coloristic, we musicians of the PSO think you’ll appreciate the lengths to which we will go in bringing them to life as their composers intended. The Debussy/Stokowski and the Scriabin each use a single, different tower chime, but the chromatic set of 20 covers almost any conceivable musical need. 

“It’s been fantastic to salvage these and use them to add magnificent sound colors to the PSO palette,” said Reamer. “The way the resonance of the Tower Chimes fills Heinz Hall is so evocative of grandeur and solemnity, I like to think Debussy or Scriabin or Mahler or Mussorgsky would be extremely pleased. Certainly living composers like Mason Bates and James MacMillan have been.”

We hope that you’ll agree that finding precisely the right tone color for a particular work is well worth the trouble, and we invite you to come hear what we’re talking about at Grand Classics 8, January 11, 12, and 13.