UF’s Century Tower is one of three locations in the state with a carillon.
Jacksonville residents Joleen Esquierdo and Craig Spillert gazed skyward as they snacked on watermelon, cheese and crackers on a blanket outside the University Auditorium on the University of Florida campus Sunday afternoon.
They and a couple dozen others sprawled out around the area to hear a music recital in honor of the instrument housed inside one of UF’s landmark monuments — Century Tower.
The instrument inside the tower, the carillon, celebrated 40 years on campus with a ceremony Sunday afternoon.
“We heard it would be a beautiful day,” Esquierdo said. “And it was a quick drive, only about an hour. I’ve heard the music here before and it was very nice.”
UF’s carillon, one of three in the state, connects 61 bells to a keyboard that musicians use to play everything from “We Are the Boys” (UF's fight song) to “Jingle Bells.”
“It’s really become an important part of the fabric of the community,” said Laura Ellis, a UF professor of carillon, organ and harpsichord and associate director of the School of Music.
Willis Bodine, a professor emeritus at the UF School of Music, said the carillon tower is an iconic image at the university.
“The sound is unusual,” he said. “You don’t hear bells very often.”
At Sunday's recital, Budd Udell, Albert Gerken, Mitchell Stecker and Bodine played various pieces that were both well known to the campus community and newly composed.
Bodine recounted how the carillon arrived on the campus in May 1979, when he was teaching music at UF.
Century Tower, completed in 1956 as a memorial for students and alumni who died in the World Wars, originally contained an electronic music system, Bodine said. The system failed after about 20 years of use.
A student senator representing the College of the Arts, then called the College of Fine Arts, made a pitch to replace the old system with a carillon.
The student government approved the purchase, and Bodine visited bell foundries all over Europe to help determine who would create the bells, which are made from bronze alloy. No bell foundries existed in the United States, so the bells needed to be imported from the Netherlands.
It was only the following year that opposition to the carillon came from within the student body, Bodine said.
The student body president during 1979 did not want to fund the carillon, which cost $200,000, and led a group of protestors in a silent march next to the tower at the dedication ceremony.
“That made life a little interesting that day,” Bodine said. “Thankfully it was a silent protest, so they just marched on by.”
Carillons date back to the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe, Bodine said, where they were usually municipally owned, but housed inside churches. Original carillons contained as few as four bells. Now, they can contain upwards of 70, but that is more rare.
UF’s carillon had only 49 bells when it was installed. Twelve more were added on Sept. 11, 2003, following a renovation funded by a donation.
“Our plan was to have the bells ready for our Sept. 11 ceremony,” Bodine said. “And they were ready that very day. In Holland, they are very meticulous.”
The bells range from the smallest at 12 pounds to its largest at 7,000 pounds.
Bells have traditionally been used to signal time, danger or church services, Bodine said.
Architecture influenced by Holland and Belgium in the 19th and 20th centuries led to the erection of several carillon towers throughout the United States, including one at Riverside Church in New York, Rockefeller Chapel in Chicago and the “Singing Tower” at Historic Bok Sanctuary in Lake Wales.
Today, fewer than 200 carillons exist nationwide, and only a few schools across the nation, including UF, teach the carillon to students.
“There are not many places where this is possible,” Bodine said.
This story originally published to gainesville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.