“The voice of the university”: discover the history and tradition of the bells of the duke’s chapel


Joseph Fala looks at the music as he plays. He hits wooden batons with his hands, pushes pedals with his feet, and reads the sheet music in front of him, all the while swaying slowly from side to side. Above him, the bells of the Duke Chapel ring with dignity and determination, the music audible throughout West Campus.

Fala, the Duke Chapel carillonneur, is responsible for most of the weekly performances of the chapel bells, which are officially known as the carillon. He started playing the carillon while studying organ at Yale University. Now at Duke, he has resumed the duties of playing an instrument whose nine-decade history is tied to that of the University.


It is 4:55 p.m. on Thursday, November 18. Fala rushes into the chapel and enters through a side door leading to a windowless stone room. He pulls out a key, unlocks another door, and locks it behind him after entering. He then opens the metal gate of a tiny elevator, barely big enough for three people, and slowly climbs up the Chapel tower.

The elevator takes Fala to the great hall where the bells hang. He walks into a small office in the middle of the space, its ceiling open so the bells are visible above.

It’s Fala’s routine every day of the week except Wednesday, when her colleague Paul Bumbalough is playing the carillon. Fala also performs before and after Sunday worship services.

Fala begins each 5:00 pm performance with a “chapel-appropriate hymn excerpt”, according to the carillon tradition. He then plays five deep tolls to mark the hour.

After that, he varies what he plays depending on the liturgical season and public holidays. Fala draws on music written for the carillon as well as popular culture: classical pieces, popular hits, anthems and soundtracks from films. For example, it plays the Star Wars theme on May 4th.

If there is a holiday or special day approaching, Fala plans what he will play about a week in advance.

“If it’s just an ordinary day, I come here and take the music on that day,” he said.

Fala also uses her song choices to recognize world events. For example, when Notre-Dame Cathedral caught fire on April 15, 2019, the chapel bells rang with the French national anthem.

Fala pointed out that it is rare for universities to have a carillonneur. Other universities often have an electric or hybrid bell system, which means the bells can ring on their own and a doorbell is not required. As a 1999 News & Observer article noted, North Carolina State University has an electronic system, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tower contains a hybrid instrument.

Despite popular belief, Duke’s bells are not electronically controlled. Instead, they are completely mechanical. Chime has 50 bells spanning four octaves, and all of them – weighing 10.5 pounds at 10,200 – are struck by clappers that Fala moves by pushing wooden batons into his office.

“It’s purely the energy you put into the machine is what you get,” Fala said.

The Duke Chapel carillon has 50 bells spread over four octaves. The smallest weighs 10.5 pounds, the largest 10,200.

There is something beautiful about having a carillonneur who chooses the bell repertoire. The human element of choosing songs and playing them live is a way “to honor the events of Duke, our community, our nation, the world in sound and music,” said Fala.

“It’s fun to be a part of such a long Duke tradition. I think it’s special that Duke keeps someone on his team to play music, ”he said. “There’s something about having a living person up there.”


In April 1930, President Duke William P. Few received a letter from President of the Duke Endowment George G. Allen and Vice President William R. Perkins.

“We wish to present to the University a carillon to be installed in the tower of the church which is currently under construction,” wrote Allen and Perkins.

Chief designer Julian Abele had designated space in the chapel tower for the bells, but there was no funding to purchase the bells themselves at the time. Allen and Perkins’ gift would fill the empty space.

“It was a beautiful gift that you gave,” Few wrote in response to Perkins. “The chapel bells will in a sense be the voice of the University, and it is only fitting that that voice comes from the two men living now who were most intimately associated with Mr. James B. Duke.”

In search of a chime, Duke turned to the Taylor Bell Foundry in Loughborough, England. The company had cast more than 20 carillons in Europe, the United States and beyond, including many bells in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

In the inaugural carillon recital in June 1932, Anton Brees performed in front of a crowd of over 10,000, according to that month’s alumni register. It was the first of many performances for Brees, who would serve as Duke’s carillonneur until 1956.

The instrument has the name of another carillonneur, J. Samuel Hammond, who held the post from 1968 until his retirement in 2018. Hammond was known not only to have played bells about more than 15,000 times in five decades, but also for his deep faith, his love for Duke and interest in the work of his friends and colleagues.

After Hammond’s death in February, Chapel Dean Luke Powery was remembered as an iconic Duke figure.

“He knew these luminaries, the professors that people talk about in the past. If you touched Sam, it was like touching Duke’s story, ”Powery said.

When Fala became a carillonneur, he adopted the tradition of playing the bells every day of the week and on Sundays. A photograph of Anton Brees hangs on the wall of the room where Fala plays the carillon, a reminder of the nine decades of history behind his position.

Fala continued to play even during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The music of the carillon echoed on an almost empty campus, a small symbol of constancy that the musical director of the Chapel called a “sign of hope” in a difficult time.

The music of the bells has also found an echo in literature. A photograph of the chapel adorns the cover of a collection of poems by Dan Blachly, entitled “Carillons”. The second of the stanza of the titular poem reads as follows:

Above the bells and on all sides

The belfry tower is wide open

It has no lattice or glass

Protect from frost or rain

The fragrant wind of the meadow blows

And among the bells of the carillon flows;

Blown snow and biting sleet

At the sound of the chime,

But through the storm and their sweet melody shine

Float like the song of angels down

On the countryside and the city.


The view from the tower room of the Duke's Chapel where the carillon bells hang on November 18, 2021.

The view from the tower room of the Duke’s Chapel where the carillon bells hang on November 18, 2021.

By the end of the afternoon in December, there was neither “snow blast” nor “freezing snow”. It’s a mild 66 degrees. People sit alone or in small groups in Bryan Center plaza. Some are chatting with friends; no more working silently on computers. The finals are approaching, after all.

The bells begin to ring.

Four members of Every Nation Campus, a Christian ministry, are in place for a meeting. They come every Thursday to do a variety of things, such as asking people about religion or offering to pray for them. The bells are ringing as they speak.

Junior AJ Smith, a member of Every Nation Campus, said he doesn’t pay much attention to the bells. They are just a reminder that five o’clock has arrived.

For junior Anna McFarlane, it’s the opposite. She lives on campus and hears the bells almost every day, but they don’t remind her of the time. Instead, she appreciates the beauty of music.

“I think it always seems magical, like a blessing,” McFarlane said.

For Julia Bretz, Trinity ’17, the bells are “classic Duke”. They are also a reminder of the Christian roots of the University.

“These are church bells, you know,” she said. “We forget that. It’s not just random bells.

The bells stop ringing.

The chapel remains silent against a darkening sky. The Plaza is not quiet, however. There is the faint hum of the students talking and laughing, walking and rubbing their feet against the fallen leaves – all the other sounds of life in Duke.

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin is a senior at Trinity and was editor of the 116th volume of The Chronicle.

Paige carlisle

Paige Carlisle is a senior at Trinity and a reporter for The Chronicle.


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