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Mercersburg Academy's Swoope Carillon rings out every Sunday

MERCERSBURG >> "Unlike a piano recital, where people sit and listen, a carillon concert allows people to walk around and talk," said James Brinson, carillonneur at Mercersburg Academy.

"The majority who experience the sound are simply going about their business, playing ball or exercising a dog, and the bells are present in their everyday lives. It is a whole different way of listening to a recital," Brinson said.

It is a recital that can be experienced every Sunday at 3 p.m. when the academy is in session. In addition, Brinson, who is on the academy's fine arts faculty, also plays for special school gatherings and rings in the holidays. Guest carillonneurs periodically also give Sunday concerts.

The Swoope Carillon, named for its donor, Henry B. Swoope, a 1923 graduate of the academy and later vice president of the board of regents, is located in Barker Tower. The tower's exquisite Gothic spire, rising majestically over the Academy campus, is a replica of one at St. Mary's Anglican Church in Oxford, England.

Swoope Carillon is one of 163 traditional carillons in the United States and holds 50 bells ranging in size from 10 pounds to more than 3.5 tons, for a combined weight of 40 tons. The bells were cast with bits and pieces of historic metal - copper from various sources, artillery shells gathered from France after World War I and a shaving from the Liberty Bell, among others.

As Brinson explains in a tongue-in-cheek joke to his students: "This is the original heavy metal music."

The addition of a chapel and tower which hold the bells had been a dream of William Mann Irvine, the academy's founder and first headmaster, and he took on the responsibility of raising the money, estimated at $800,000, to build it.

Grace Coolidge, wife of the President, went to Mercersburg for the ground-breaking ceremony in 1922.

The first person to play the carillon was a Belgian, Anton Brees. A student of his in England, the respected Bryan Barker, then served as carillonneur at the academy for 51 years.

Barker wrote much of his own music and was noted for taking a hymn or a familiar song and finding different ways to perform it.

"There is a lot of music written specifically for the carillon," said Brinson, "and in other cases, such as hymns, folk songs, or piano music, there have been arrangements that have been transcribed for the instrument. A carillon is indeed a musical instrument, the largest one in the world."

Brinson, born in Birmingham, Alabama, still retains the soft accent of his southern upbringing. He has been teaching music and playing the carillon since he came to the academy 13 years ago. He started to study piano at age 5, more as a hobby. It did not become a serious interest until his sophomore year in college when he changed his major to music.

Now he considers it his vocation and profession. "I have either been performing church music or teaching music on all educational levels from elementary to collegiate," he said.

The carillon as an instrument is over 500 years old, when people began to cast and tune bells, rig up mechanisms to play them, and install them in churches. "It was the musical entertainment for the common people," Brinson said.

However, unlike images of people gathered in a church tower pulling on long ropes to sound the bells, this instrument is played using a keyboard.

"The bells in a carillon don't swing," said Brinson. "What moves are the clappers inside."

Swoope Carillon "is such a part of the aural environment that it is part of the identity of the school," Brinson said.

For more information, visit the Mercersburg Academy website at and click on "Campus Life," and then "Chapel & Spirituality."