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Ringing comes to Washington


Rick Dirksen


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On Friday, October 3, 2008, The Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre, fifth Dean of Washington Cathedral from 1951 to 1978, passed from this earth at the age of 93 years. A brave and tireless advocate for social justice, Dean Sayre was also a visionary whose passion for English change ringing was singularly responsible for the installation of Washington’s 10-bell peal in 1963: a time when change ringing was virtually unknown in the United States, and in a tower to which a 53-bell carillon had already been committed.

Inspired by Dean Sayre, the rapid development of ringing at the Cathedral from 1963 played a significant role in subsequent restoration of ringing at a number of dormant towers in the United States and sparked the success of the Whitechapel and Taylor bell foundry’s marketing programs during the next decade. Following is the story of how ringing came to Washington, as presented in an address given by Richard Dirksen to the North American Guild of Change Ringers at their Annual General Meeting in Washington, September 4, 2004.

“Good evening. Let me add my own warm welcome to our guests and ringing colleagues visiting on this occasion. It is a pleasure to have you with us and I am both honored and privileged to have been asked to speak to you on this occasion. Although it would be fun to reminisce with you about the struggles of getting ringing established in Washington and in North America, between 1963 and the founding of the NAG in 1972, I would like to take this opportunity to share with you the pre-history of the Washington peal and how it happens that our tower contains both a 53-bell carillon and 10-bell peal.

This story involves three extraordinary men, each of whom played a highly significant role in the growth of the Cathedral during its last 40 years of construction. The Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre, grandson of President Woodrow Wilson, was the visionary Dean of the Cathedral from 1951 to 1978 who was largely responsible for securing the high level of artistic and programmatic integrity for which this magnificent building is known. Philip Hubert Frohman was the principal architect of the Cathedral for most of its years: a brilliant man of enormous artistic talent in a variety of fields. Richard Wayne Dirksen, my father, spent his 47- year career, from 1942 - 1989, as Organist, Choirmaster, Director of Program, and, ultimately, Canon Precentor of the Cathedral. Wayne was widely known and admired not only as a gifted musician, but, like both the Dean and Mr. Frohman, as a passionate and articulate communicator of the artistic and religious precepts upon which the Cathedral's mission was based.

In the spring of 1960, the Cathedral fabric was far from complete. There was no tower, the South Transept was still under construction, and the Nave extended only for the first four bays from the crossing. Upon receipt of a very sizeable gift in the late 1950's, the Cathedral's governing body, known as the Chapter, had determined, after a long and often strident debate, that the gift should be applied to completing the Central Tower -- as a symbol held high above the city -- rather than to further extend the nave and thus increase the seating capacity of the building. Significant in that discussion was the fact that a substantial bequest from the estate of Miss Bessie J. Kibbey, dating back to the 1930's, was already in hand to provide bells for the tower, whenever it might be completed. As it happened, the bequest was also specifically detailed to provide the finest carillon money could buy.

The Dean, however, had long envisioned an English peal for the tower, notwithstanding the fact that the Art and Science of change ringing was virtually unknown in the United States at the time and was practiced regularly only by boys at the Groton and Kent schools in New England. His reasons for that predilection were set forth in October of 1960 in a memorandum to the Cathedral's Building Committee, entitled: "Bells; Their Reason for Being", from which I will now quote in part:

" We are not a parish but aspire to a national witness in behalf of the whole Church. Therefore, just as pulpit and liturgy here should reflect and comment on the wider movements of our national history, so will the Cathedral bells proclaim our Christian faith in God's Providence and in the destiny of our people. Bells are meant to carry such a proclamation beyond the limits of the churchyard, to the ears of all, whether they ever attend a church or not. I like to think of bells as evangelical, even missionary, in their role….

As I have thought about the use of bells in our Tower, I would analyze the possible purposes as follows:
(1) To mark national events and the church seasons and proclaim them loudly across and even beyond the Nation's capital via radio and television.
(2) To ring out every Sunday in behalf of worship services held here and generally throughout the city and nation.
(3) Finally, bells are used in many places as an instrument for concerts; thus carillons have been developed to provide concerts which attract large groups of people, some who come specially to hear them.

Of the above three categories, I can see real meaning and theological significance to (1) and (2), but I confess that I can see little compulsion in (3): for it does not seem to me that entertainment is the Church's business, however great the music may be…. In fulfilling the requirements of (1) and (2), what would therefore seem to me to be desirable is not a carillon, but rather a peal of bells, together with one great bourdon of deep tone. A peal on the English style is an instrument capable of wild joyousness, stirring, jangling…. Just right to proclaim, like some great rooster's crowing, the [great events of our church and nation.] At the same time, a great, booming bourdon ought to be tolled on occasions of death and of war and of deep solemnity."

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In order to further build his case for a peal, The Dean also detailed Wayne Dirksen -- then the Associate Organist and Choirmaster and Director of the Schools' Glee Clubs -- to do a thorough investigation of the long history of bell discussions at the Cathedral, to visit several carillon installations, and, most particularly, to become acquainted with the art of change ringing by visiting the bell ringing program at Groton School. The following quotes are taken from Wayne's report to the Dean following his visit to Groton:

"Upon our arrival late in the fall afternoon, Mr. Young ushered me up the winding steps into the tower of the beautiful chapel, and introduced me to the peal of eight bells… My first sight of them was most impressive, for they were balanced, all mouth and tongue upwards, as we climbed up into their chamber above the ringing room; and though at rest they appeared momentarily about to cast off in full flight. When next I saw them, the following morning at 7:30, they were indeed awesome! The chamber was restless and quaking as the great mouths swept side to side in complete 360 degree arcs, the massive weights in swift-sweeping motion, their metal tongues hurled in cheek at each swing.

'The sound was indescribable! As a musician, nothing in my experience had prepared me for the power of that aural assault. It was so loud and so intensively persistent that I felt physical pain at moments, though not continuously. In spite of that, such moments were pleasurable now that I look back on it, and for no apparent reasons other than a sense of all encompassing and enveloping sound -- an expectancy of being washed away completely on an angry sea of it. Leaving the tower, I walked out over the surrounding campus for the next twenty minutes as those bells pealed, and although the intensity was not again the same, the same exhilaration and expectancy went with me…. It was then I realized that a peal of bells in full cry is, in a sense, a recreation of the ever-impending and imperious voice of the Church itself, compelling all believers to attention. Its voice cannot be denied."

But, passionate and articulate as they might be, Deans and Choirmasters proposals carry only a certain amount of weight with Chapters -- particularly when the proposal might threaten to compromise an ironclad bequest, change approved building plans, and likely add both time and cost to the process of building the cathedral. Thus it was, ultimately, the voice of the revered architect, Philip Hubert Frohman, which weighed the balance in favor of adding a peal to the foregone necessity of providing a carillon. His feelings, along with an analysis of the intricacies of change ringing and the merits of including a ten bell peal in the tower, were set forth in a 4-page, single spaced letter dated November 7, 1960 to Richard T. Feller, then the Cathedral's Assistant Business Manager. His insightful words, likewise, bear quotation:

"I am in complete agreement with what the Dean has said in his remarkable memorandum and most emphatically do I agree with the Dean's belief that entertainment is not the church's business. To entertain is not the purpose of the prayers or liturgy of music of the Church and it should not be the purpose of church bells. The carillon, when well played, may give pleasure to many people, it's voices may speak of many things, but, as Mr. Dirksen rightly says, the sound of the peal of bells is the "voice of the Church itself" and "It's voice cannot be denied." During our visit to England last autumn, I became aware of my wife's love of the peals of bells…. As one of the pleasures of our trip, she describes a walk over the fields to the southeast of Wells Cathedral and hearing the "hour long cascade of sound" which preceded the service of the Harvest Festival. Although we may have a carillon as the result of Miss Kibbey's generous bequest, yet I hope that we may also have a peal of bells that will be the voice of the Cathedral."

Mr. Frohman's letter, along with the Dean's and Wayne Dirksen's reports, was presented to the Building Committee in November of 1960. Thus, as a result of the combined efforts of these three visionary men, the Chapter, in February, 1961, unanimously authorized Mr. Frohman to move forward with the necessary re-design of the tower to accommodate both a peal and a carillon; the Dean was authorized to proceed with fund raising to secure the requisite additional gifts; and the Clerk of the Works was instructed to begin discussion with the Whitechapel and Taylor bell foundries for the work to be done. Accordingly, two years later, on June 13, 1963, a procession of 13 flatbed trucks bearing both sets of bells pulled up on the Cathedral's North Drive and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Since their dedication in 1964, the Cathedral’s peal bells have been rung regularly every Sunday following the 11:00 a.m. service. Over 100 full peals and 500 quarter peals have been rung to mark significant occasions, ranging from presidential inaugurations and state funerals, to weddings, national holidays, and a range of religious and secular events, both local and national. Through the Washington Ringing Society and the National Cathedral School’s Whitechapel guild, hundreds of people have learned how to ring a tower bell, and, in North America there are now over 500 ringers active in 50 bell towers. It is truly an exciting realization of that goal first articulated by Dean Sayre nearly 50 years ago: “… to carry such a proclamation [of our Christian faith in God’s Providence] beyond the limits of the churchyard, to the ears of all, whether they ever attend a church or not.”

Richard S. Dirksen
Ringing Master of Washington Cathedral, 1965 – 1984;
Director of the Whitechapel Guild, 1965 – present

October 13, 2008


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