Tower Chimes Get Second Life at Heinz Hall

Tower Chimes Get Second Life at Heinz Hall

On Heinz Hall’s stage, a weekend featuring Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony will also see the resurrection of a set of beautiful bronze tower chimes unheard for decades.

This tale begins, as so many do, with two friends talking.

A set of Deagan Tower Chimes.
A set of Deagan Tower Chimes.

Principal percussionist Andrew Reamer first heard about Deagan tower chimes from a colleague at the Houston Symphony, principal percussionist (and Pittsburgh native) Brian Del Signore, several years ago. Del Signore related that he had gotten an out-of-the-blue call from a church that had dismantled its Deagan chime system and offered to let him come and take a look. (The Houston Symphony did buy those chimes.) Last year, Reamer saw some Deagan chimes in Philadelphia, reviving his interest in them. (“I said to myself, ‘Wow. I really want to get a set of these as soon as we can,’” Reamer relates.) Reamer then connected with William Pugh, an expert restorer of Deagan chimes, telling Pugh to let him know if a set of chimes became available.

A standard 20-note Deagan Tower Chime System with dampers from 1927 (photo from Top Rung Tower Chime & Organ Service website)
A standard 20-note Deagan Tower Chime System with dampers from 1927 (photo from Top Rung Tower Chime & Organ Service website)

J.C. Deagan was a developer and manufacturer of percussion instruments from the late 19th to mid-20th century. A man of science and music, he was the first to scientifically tune glockenspiels. His company later developed the xylophone, vibraharp, organ chimes, aluminum chimes, aluminum harp, Swiss handbells, the marimba and orchestra bells. Among his many accomplishments is the revolutionizing of church and public building carillons — he developed a system of tubular church bells, equipped with dampers to eliminate tone intermingling, controlled electrically and playable both manually and automatically. Over a 40-year period, more than 400 Deagan chime sets were installed. Only about 100 still exist.

In February of this year, Pugh called.

A church in Rockford, Illinois, was looking to sell its 20-note set of Deagan chimes, which they had uninstalled in November 2016, as a way to pay for a new roof. The high-quality bronze set was installed in Bethesda Evangelical Covenant Church in 1928. The Pittsburgh Symphony acquired all 20 chimes, hammers and assorted pieces of mechanism along with the 20 bronze tubular church bells. Reamer went out to Illinois with the symphony’s truck driver, loaded several tons of chimes with the help of the church crew, and, 10 hours later, unloaded them into their new home in Heinz Hall.

That’s when the work really began.

Tower chime in the process of being cleaned.
Tower chime in the process of being cleaned.

As research, Reamer traveled to a church in Grove City, which has an operational set of Deagan tower chimes, and spent a day in the tower listening and watching the action of the chimes when struck. Each of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s tower chimes are five to seven inches in diameter and range from five- to nearly 14-feet tall. Each one desperately needed to be cleaned. Stage technician Bill Weaver devised a mechanism to suspend each chime in vinegar to help clean decades of corrosion and dirt. He spent countless hours soaking, scrubbing and polishing the chimes. Heinz Hall stagehands devised a rack to hang the eight chimes that will be used on stage during Mahler’s Second Symphony. Each chime will be played by being hand-struck with a 25-pound hammer (which were part of the original system installed at the church). It will take two percussionists to play the chimes during the fifth movement of the symphony. [Editor’s note: two e-flat chimes made their Heinz Hall debut on the program of BNY Mellon Grand Classics: Pictures at an Exhibition March 31 and April 2.]

So was all the effort worth it?

Percussionist Andrew Reamer with the Deagan Tower Chimes that will be used during the performance of Mahler's 2nd Symphony on June 2 and 4.
Percussionist Andrew Reamer with the Deagan Tower Chimes that will be used during the performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony on June 2 and 4.

“The sound can’t be duplicated by anything else,” says Reamer. “This is a fantastic acquisition and it’s going to be awesome. It’s icing on the cake – actually it’s better than that!”

Mahler, it seems, would agree. The composer himself bought church bells for performances of the Resurrection, finding all other means of producing the sounds he wanted unsatisfactory.

Mahler wrote of the final movement of the symphony: “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.”

You can hear the “tremendous” Resurrection Symphony during the BNY Mellon Grand Classics on June 2-4 at Heinz Hall. Tickets, which begin at $20, are available at www.pittsburghsymphony.org/Resurrection or 412-392-4900.

Editor’s Note: Check out the score of the “Resurrection” Symphony — some scans include notes from the composer himself — at http://imslp.org/wiki/Symphony_No.2_(Mahler,_Gustav). Learn more about J.C. Deagan at the Percussive Arts Society webpage.



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