Until now, there’s been no need to ask who tolls the bells, for everyone in the Duke University community knows it is J. Samuel Hammond who plays the Duke Chapel carillon at the close of each work day.
But after more than 50 years, a span that included six Duke presidents, Hammond will retire from his role as university carillonneur at the end of December.
The ringing of the carillon bells at 5 p.m. every weekday is a recognizable part of campus life at Duke. It begins with a brief tune, and then Hammond sounds the largest bell five times to mark the five o’clock hour. Next, he plays a selection of hymns and other compositions for about 15 minutes.
Given that Hammond plays the carillon an average of 300 times each year, the number of his performances exceeds 15,000.
“The carillon marks the rhythm of our days here at Duke, providing a shared experience that -- sometimes subtly -- connects us with one another, with traditions that stretch across centuries and continents, and even with God,” said the Rev. Luke A. Powery, dean of Duke Chapel. “The person who has carried on that tradition at Duke for decades, faithfully and unassumingly, is Sam.”
Raised in Americus, Ga., Hammond first learned to play the carillon during his freshman year at Duke in 1964.
“When I was a freshman at Duke, I met the student carillonneur at the time, John Simpson, when we studied organ together,” Hammond explained. “John invited me to see the carillon (of which I knew nothing), and in response to my intrigued interest in such an unusual instrument and in a potential opportunity of being of service to the university, kindly provided me beginning instruction and, ultimately, opportunity to play.”
Soon, Hammond was playing the instrument regularly at 5 p.m. as well as for the chapel’s Sunday morning worship services, university ceremonies and certain funerals.
From his start as a student carillonneur, Hammond was promoted to chapel carillonneur in 1968 and then university carillonneur in 1986. Along the way, he earned two master’s degrees in library science and theological studies, and worked for 41 years as a music librarian in Duke’s Rare Book Room and other departments.
The chapel’s 50-bell carillon is an exclusively mechanical instrument. To play it, Hammond strikes with his fists a series of wooden keys, arranged similarly to a piano’s keys, and presses pedals with his feet. The key or pedal pulls a cable which in turn causes a hammer to strike the inside of the corresponding bell. The largest bell weighs more than five tons and the smallest about 10 pounds. The carillon was refurbished in 1992 to improve its mechanical action.
Also an occasional church organist, Hammond selects songs to coincide with the church calendar, national holiday or other public occasions. At times, Hammond has been playful with his selections, such as performing the theme songs for Mickey Mouse, Harry Potter, Star Wars and Star Trek. On Fridays, he plays the Duke alma mater.
In addition to his regular playing times, Hammond has given concert-length recitals at Duke, as well as at churches, universities and bell towers across the country. At his most recent concert at Duke last spring, he played pieces for the Easter season by J.S. Bach as well as present-day composers.
Hammond also serves as the longtime volunteer accompanist for the Duke University String School, playing the piano for rehearsals and concerts by the youth orchestras.
After Hammond’s retirement, two musicians will share the carillonneur role on an interim basis: Paul Bumbalough, a senior advisor with Duke Visa Services, who already plays the carillon regularly at Duke, and Joseph Fala, an organ scholar at Duke Chapel.