Stones that Sing
David Breneman gives weekly concerts during warm weather at the Luray Singing Tower, home to 35,000 pounds of bells.
“You want to try it?” David Breneman asks, and I’m afraid to say yes.
An hour ago, we climbed three flights of stairs, going floor by concrete floor up to the top of an almost- 70-year-old stone tower near Luray, Va., on an unseasonably warm winter day.
“I’ve never been really comfortable in high places, except in here,” Breneman says, “‘cause I know it’s going to stay in place.”
Stay in place, yes. It’s strong enough to survive wind, fire and flood, certainly. It’s built of solid stone quarried from the nearby mountains. It’s tall – Breneman can see it from his kitchen table on Massanutten Mountain, some miles away west and up. Thirtyfive thousand pounds of bells hang in the top of the tower.
Right above Breneman’s head. “Where the carilloneur sits is really the worst place to be,” he says – climb a few feet further, up a steep, spiral metal stair and you’re right underneath all 47 of them. “It’s plenty loud. It’s like being in an orchestra.” The noise measures about 110 decibels, he’s been told.
David Breneman has been carilloneur at the Luray Singing Tower since 1984. The carillon has been there since 1937, erected by one Col. Northcott in memory of his wife, Belle Brown Northcott. At the time, Northcott owned the land under the tower and above neighboring Luray Caverns. He gave the carillon to the Town of Luray but the caverns remain privately owned.
Breneman sits at the clavier – the keyboard of the carillon, so to speak, except instead of keys there are batons – polished English oak rods placed just like piano keys. He plays them with his fists and palms, not his fingers, and there are foot pedals, too, as on an organ. Playing with fists, rather than looking clumsy or violent, is an elegant technique.
Up here in the top of the tower, Breneman plays weekly concerts during the warm-weather months. Sousa, Bach, Broadway tunes, even “Rocky Top,” “Shenandoah” and “Unchained Melody.” “The World’s Greatest Fakebook” sits in his music stacks along with a Methodist hymnal and crumbling sheet music.
“If I see a car in the parking lot from Missouri, I play the Missouri Waltz.” He once played “Happy Birthday” for a neighbor’s little girl.
Breneman, whose other keyboard instrument is the pipe organ, grew up in Luray, and in high school his choir would come to the tower and sing at Vespers services. At that time, the carilloneur was Charles T. Chapman, who was carilloneur from 1937 until he retired in 1984.
Later, while a music student at Bridgewater College, Breneman saw a television program on carillons, “and I thought – now, I’d like to do that.”
So the next day he drove to Luray, knocked on Chapman’s door and when it opened, asked if he taught lessons. “His eyes just sort of lit up and he said, ‘Oh yes!’”
Today, Breneman sits on the bench and checks the bells. The batons are connected to axles, which are connected to arms with wires that reach up through the open space to the bells. When he plays, the mechanism rattles noisily and the wires shiver in the sunlight above.
The batons are touch-sensitive, so a carilloneur can play loud or soft. Breneman strikes an F gently, and it sounds distant and mysterious, as if it’s floating in on the wind from someplace far away. He strikes it again, harder, and the ring is brighter, louder.
Temperature, he says, doesn’t affect the bells, which were cast out of iron in Loughborough, England.
“Tuning is done once,” Breneman says. “Maybe after 150 years it’s good to check them.”
The cold, however, can cause the wires to constrict. “This one’s a little tight.” The bell thunks. He adjusts, then plays the note again. It rings. I am looking at the keys warily. Breneman asks, “You want to try it?”
He’s quite serious. I sit down, thinking, a lot of people will hear if I miss a note.
I play a C, then a B, then on through the first phrase of “Joy to the World.” It seems a good bell-ringing kind of carol, and it is still December.
“It’s always quite transforming,” Breneman had said earlier. “I can be mad at the world, but by the end of the recital I feel good again.”
I wait a moment, listening to the bottom C resonate, and keep going.
“…And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.” No wrong notes.