Tour the Carillon in University Circle

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Amongst the constant wave of traffic on Euclid Avenue a melody breaks through.

What people may or may not stop to notice is where the song is coming from. But the carillon keeps ringing – as it has for nearly 50 years- from the tower inside the Church of the Covenant at University Circle in Cleveland.

“A lot of people don’t realize there is somebody up there actually playing,” said George Leggiero, who has been playing the instrument for decades.

Tucked away in the bell tower of the church he sits and plays a keyboard with both his hands and feet. That’s what signals the carillon bells-  all 15,000 pounds of them- to make music.

“It’s a lot of klankity klank and what not. It sounds a lot nicer outside,” he said.

Inside the 140-foot high tower, the bells ring with each note he strikes on the keyboard. The keys signal wires that connect to the clappers in the bells, which makes the music. A carillon has to have at least 23 bells, this one has 47.

Some of the bells of the McGaffin Carillon

Leggiero never sought out to be a carollinneur. The vocation found him while a graduate student at Case Western Reserve living in the building next to the church.

“They has lost their carillonneur and was I interested,” he said. “I had two semesters of piano and even with that they said, ‘fine, just practice for a month and we’ll see.’ And so that was 43 years ago, and I’ve been playing ever since.”

Students walking by and patients across the street at University Hospital have a front row seat for the carillon, which is one of only about 180 in North America.

“There are only 10 in the state of Ohio. We have four of them in Northeast Ohio, but this is about the most active one at this point [in Northeast Ohio],” he said.

Some churches install electronic carillons, which play without bells. Nearby at Church in the Circle, also known as “the Holy Oil Can,” an electronic one chimes the time and plays music throughout the day.

The carillon enjoyed a “golden age” in the 15th and 16th centuries in places like Holland, Belgium and Northern France, according to the Guild of Carollinneurs in North America. They were played in town centers on market day and holidays and were a sign of status. In 2017, Leggiero sees it as an instrument for the entire, bustling University Circle district.

“I think it sort of enhances the soundscape of the area,” he said. “If somebody wanders by and whistles along, sings along or feels better as they walk by, that’s a good thing.”

He and several church members want to get more attention for the instrument and preserve it. They formed the non-profit, Friends of the McGaffin Carillon in University Circle, to focus on its future.

“Most of the instrument is out exposed to the elements, and all of it's mechanical. It’s not electric at all. And so a lot of the pieces wear out,” he said

The group seeks to raise $1 million for restoration work and to enhance the capabilities for the carillon. That work includes restoring the clock chimes, the automatic play system and the three-bell peal. They also hope to install a new digital practice instrument, a system to stream performances online and two new bells. Repairs will require the assistance of the foundry that built the carillon, the Royal Eijsbouts, in the Netherlands.

Work at the Royal Eijsbouts bell foundry in the Netherlands [Courtesy Royal Eijsbouts]

While the carillon was installed in 1968, the church built a tower for the instrument in 1911. It sat empty for decades, according to Denise Horstman, the president of the carillon’s non-profit and an archivist at the church.

“The pastor who led the congregation at that time through the building process of this giant building really wanted to have a carillon in the tower, and he actually persuaded the members of the congregation to spring for the money it was going to take to build the tower,” she said.

The instrument was named for that pastor, Alexander McGaffin, and it was eventually funded by his widow and church members, years later. The biggest bell bears his name and a special inscription.

“He rejoiced with them that rejoice[d] and wept with them that wept.' And it’s a fitting testament to a man who was known as an emotional and spiritual support to his flock, but to me it’s a fitting inscription for bells,” she said.

And so this carillon will keep ringing from the tower at Church of the Covenant. It can be heard Sundays during church throughout the year. The non-profit is also providing summer concerts on Fridays at 12:15 p.m. and Sundays at 11 a.m.

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