100 years ago, the bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were played by a man who pulled various levers attached to clappers that rang the bells:
Though their music may be heard miles away, it can scarcely be heard in the Cathedral as far back as the Lady Chapel, while the chimes ringer himself, as he stands on the keyboard platform, 110 feet below the bells, operating the levers, will catch but faint murmurs of the melody as he plays. For play he does, when at his duty, after the manner than a man would play the organ, the difference being that instead of using keys, he presses down upon levers. There is a separate lever for each one o the nineteen bells. The device, which is termed the “tracker action,” is the same as that used in the playing of chimes generally. A wooden rod, 110 feet long, attached to each lever by means of a leather strap, and to the clapper of each bell, is the controlling agent of melodic communication.
I’m not sure if the bells are still rung by hand. The bells underwent a restoration at the end of the 20th Century, and I was able to find one video of the bells chiming in 2008, but it’s unclear if they are manually operated. The Cathedral’s official website barely mentions them, although they have plenty of information about the pipe organ.
My favorite church bells in the city are at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side. Their carillon was a gift of J.D. Rockefeller, Jr. It includes the world’s largest and heaviest cast tuned bell, and is still manually played on Sundays and special events. The current carillonneur is an 80-year old man named Dionisio Lind, who was recently profiled by the Daily News, who put together this video featuring him playing the bells:
When I came to New York, the bell tower was open to the public. It cost just two dollars to ride the elevator up half way, and then you would get out and climb the rest of the way through the tower, past all the bells, past the carillon keyboard (called a baton console), until you reached a platform that offerred a 360-degree view of Manhattan and New Jersey. The few times I ever went, there was nobody else up there. It was one of my favorite New York secrets. Unfortunately, the bell tower was closed to the public in 2001, citing fire safety concerns. I guess you can’t really build a fire escape on a bell tower.
Bonus: If you aren’t yet convinced that Riverside Church is way cooler than Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, I have one word for you: Bjork.
RINGING THE CHIMES OF ST. PATRICK’S ON EASTER DAY (PDF)
From April 9, 1911