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Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021

Behind the Mead Chapel bells, carillonneur George Matthew Jr. plays for passion and protest

At 12:30 p.m. each day, the 48 bells suspended in Mead Chapel’s tower ring out. The sounds of Irish folk songs, Baroque fugues and ragtime jigs echo across campus. The chapel’s tower is a central landmark on campus, but its virtuoso remains an enigma to many.

George Matthew Jr. has played the carillon — the set of bells suspended in the tower — for 59 years, 35 of them at Middlebury College. His love for the instrument started long before that, more than 81 years ago.

In one of Matthew’s first memories, he sat on his grandfather’s shoulders, his head standing high above the crowd at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York City. He had an unimpeded view of the carillon tower rising high above him. When the bells began to play so thunderously loud that they echoed in his head, he stared, enraptured. His four-year-old heart sang, and from that moment on, he was hooked on the carillon.

Matthew comes from a family of musicians who were more than supportive of his interests, but his early efforts to learn music were unsuccessful.

At age five, his uncle tried to teach him how to play the violin. But as a naturally talented player, his uncle didn’t understand how to teach Matthew, who didn’t share his gift.

At age six, his father, who directed the church choir and played the organ, started him on the piano with a stern German instructor, but, once again, the instrument didn’t stick.

At age seven, the magic struck. His parents bought him a mellophone, an instrument similar to the french horn. He played it for hours, practicing and practicing until his lips swelled up, and he was forced to take a break. He drove the neighbors crazy, so his parents banished him to the cellar, where the walls muffled his playing, and he could happily practice for as long as he liked.

Still, he dreamed of playing the big, booming organ that he watched his father play at church. His parents insisted that he learn to play the piano before advancing to the larger instrument. So he started piano lessons again at age nine, until he finally graduated to the organ at age 12.

He “loved every aspect of it,” and demonstrated a natural gift. By age 13, he became the church organist, playing for his congregation every Sunday.

Matthew inherited his love of music from his father, but he never wanted Matthew to follow in his footsteps. He recalls his father telling him, “You won’t make any money. You’ll be unhappy, and you’ll turn against yourself because your art won't be supporting you.”

Matthew showed a natural aptitude for science, so he followed his father’s advice and enrolled at Columbia University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

Even as he committed himself to his studies, he never forgot about music or the carillon. Whenever he had breaks from classes, labs or other responsibilities, he would go outside to hear the great Belgian carillonneur Kamiel Lefevere play the 74-bell carillon at Riverside Church just four blocks away. Matthew tried approaching LeFevre for lessons, but he was refused.

Matthew held on to his dream of playing the carillon even as he went on to work in chemical research. He continued to play music on the side, working as an organist at various churches and temples.

In 1963, he learned that Princeton carillonneur Arthur Lynds Bigelow was offering free lessons in New Canaan, Connecticut. He jumped at the opportunity. Once a week for a year, Matthew attended carillon lessons with a group of other students. The experience was well worth the long wait. Matthew loved playing the carillon even more than he enjoyed listening to it.

For the next five years, Matthew drove all over the northeast to play whenever and wherever could until the First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, Connecticut hired him as their carillonneur in 1968.

Matthew continued to work as a chemical researcher for 15 years while simultaneously playing music at a series of churches and synagogues. In 1972, he was working upwards of 80 hours a week between his multiple jobs while studying for a master’s degree in world music. He quit his job as a chemical researcher to dedicate himself to a career in music.

“There was no use fighting it anymore,” he said. “Music just took over my life.”

Matthew’s carillion is located in the tower of Mead Chapel and can be heard ringing out all across campus. (Van Barth)

In 1985, Allan Dragone, then the chair of Middlebury College’s Board of Trustees, approached Matthew to help the college create their own carillon. Matthew helped expand the college’s set of bells to a full-scale, four octave carillon that he has played for the last 35 years as the college’s carillonneur.

One condition of Matthew’s contract with Middlebury is that he teaches whoever asks him for lessons, for free. He estimates that he's taught between 80 and 90 students in the 35 years he’s played at Middlebury. One of his students, Amy Heebner ’93, began playing the carillon under his tutelage and has since gone on to a successful career as the Albany, N.Y. city hall carillonneur.

When he’s not playing the carillon at Middlebury College, Matthew is playing the organ for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in town or traveling around the country or the world to play elsewhere. He began his first carillon tour of the U.S. in 1979. Since then, he has traveled on 39 more tours in North America and 13 in Europe.

When Matthew plays, he hopes that his listeners understand his “emotional language.” He recalls a woman approaching him after a carillon concert in Brussels, Belgium. When she began speaking to him in Flemish, he had to interject to tell her that he couldn’t understand. She spoke again, and a bystander translated.

“You don’t speak our language, but your hands speak our language,” she said.

When Middlebury evacuated students from campus last March, he played the carillon for several hours each day as students moved out. He interspersed Bach with the alma mater every 15 minutes to tell students, “We ain’t beat yet, and we want you back.”

When the college permitted Matthew to play again in mid-May, he returned to an empty campus. Matthew regards himself as serving Middlebury the town as much as the college, so he played every day to try to lift the town’s spirits.

As the pandemic continues, he frequently plays “Va, pensiero” from the opera Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi, one of the songs that people across Italy sang to each other from their balconies during the national lockdown. He wanted to transmit that same spirit of community and hope to Middlebury.

He also uses the carillon for political messages. Matthew views the Trump administration’s family separation policy as “one of the [greatest] crimes of this century.” For the past two years, he has been playing Mexican folk songs every day as his own form of protest. He also frequently plays the spiritual “Joshua fought the Battle of Jericho,” the second line of which is “and the walls come tumbling down” in defiance of Trump’s “build a wall” rallying cry.

After police killed George Floyd in May, Matthew began playing songs related to the Black Lives Matter Movement. For the past six months, he has alternated between playing “O’ Freedom,” “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — otherwise known as “The Black National Anthem” — every day.

“I'm hoping to just make people aware of this and pay tribute to the many millions of people who have gone through a pretty hellish experience here,” Matthew said.

Though already 85, Matthew has no plans to retire or stop playing, not until he “can’t play decently anymore or Gabriel blows his horn, whichever comes first.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly reported that Matthew rode on his father’s shoulders at the 1939 World’s Fair; it was his grandfather’s shoulders. It also said that Matthew recalled reaching up to the piano keyboard to practice when he was six years old when he was two years old at the time. The previous version erroneously stated that George Floyd was shot and killed by police. He was choked to death as a police officer knelt on his neck.

Sophia McDermott-Hughes

Sophia McDermott-Hughes ’23 is an editor at large.

They previously served as a news editor and senior news writer.

McDermott-Hughes is a joint anthropology and Arabic major and Spanish minor.

Over the summer, they worked as a general assignment reporter at statewide digital newspaper VTDigger, focusing on issues relating to migrant workers and immigration.

In 2018 and 2019, McDermott-Hughes worked as a reporter on the Since Parkland Project, a partnership with the Trace and the Miami Herald, which chronicled the lives of the more than 1,200 children killed by gun violence in the United States in the year since the Marjory Stoneman  Douglas High School shooting in Florida.