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Preserving Altgeld Hall’s Music Legacy

For anyone living within earshot of the Illinois campus after 1958, the sound of the Altgeld chimes will always be a fond memory.  After the carillon’s dedication on October 30, 1920, the chimes were played regularly until 1951 for major campus events like homecoming and graduation, but afterward only sporadically until the carillon was restored in 1958.  That year the School of Music’s director, Duane Branigan, invited Albert Marien, an accounting instructor and University auditor (1948-1970), to perform regular short concerts as the university’s first chime master (1958-1994) while students passed between classes at noon.

I never heard Marien’s noontime concerts.  However, the charming sounds of Sue Wood’s performances, the second university chime master between 1994 and 2017, always brought a smile to my heart as I dashed across the quad to another tiresome meeting.   Sue’s carillon strains of Illinois Loyalty always slowed my hurried pace, and sometimes teasingly enticed me to play hooky.

I was never able to find time to visit Sue as she played the chimes.  Until I began conversations with Tina Horton, the university’s current chime master (2019-present) about the long-term preservation of the chimes’ music and administrative records, my experiences with the carillon were only as a voyeur passing below Altgeld’s music belfry.

In early October I finally had the opportunity to climb the steep stairway to the small room where the chimes were mysteriously played.  My purpose was to photograph Tina’s evening performance of the fabled carillon and identify which historical records to transfer to the Sousa Archives.   My hike up the stairs was greeted by the room’s heavily padded doorway to prevent concussions for anyone taller than a thirteenth-century monk.

However, once in the room the simple darkly stained oak keyboard and its meticulously strung metal cables to the carillon’s fifteen bells above me commanded quiet awe for the campus’ most recognized music instrument.  As I stood there, I imagined what the new chimes must have sounded like during their 1920 premiere playing By the Rivers Gently Flowing, America, Illinois Loyalty, and Adeste Fidelis.

The bells were built by Baltimore’s McShane Bell Foundry Company under the direction of A. Austin Harding, the University’s first director of bands.  Originally thirteen bells were planned for the carillon in 1919, but it was discovered that two additional bells were needed to play the University’s Illinois Loyalty.  After some handwringing by campus administrators, the University’s U.S. School of Military Aeronautics provided the additional funding for the extra two bells.  The historical records do not indicate which two bells were added to complete the necessary pitches to play Illinois Loyalty.

On October 30, 2020 the chimes’ afternoon centennial performance was greeted with spectacular blue skies and a joyous audience surrounding Altgeld Hall.  While everyone’s eyes and ears were focused on the wonderful performance by the Marching Illini and the legendary chimes, I could almost sense the presence of Albert Marien, Sue Wood, A. Austin Harding, and the many other individuals who helped provide our community their distinctive carillon voice as Illinois Loyalty played skyward.

While the planned 2021 renovation of Altgeld Hall will again briefly silence the chimes, their historical legacy is now safely preserved at the Sousa Archives.  As we await the carillon’s voice to return above Alma’s outstretched hands, the stories of the chimes’ beginnings and the musicians who regularly played them will live on in the archives’ collections.   For further information about and access to the newly acquired Altgeld Chimes Music and Records either visit sousaarchives.org [https://archon.library.illinois.edu/index.php?p=collections/findingaid&id=11890], call 217-244-9309, or email sousa@illinois.edu.

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