Lesson #338: The Cambridge Chimes

Out of the blue this afternoon, for absolutely no reason, my brain wondered, “hey, what’s that song that clocks play at the top of the hour?”*

You know, this one.

I associate this sound with two very distinct things; my grandparents’ grandfather clock and the clock tower at the prep school in the city where I was born, where my brother and I went to music camp in the summers.

So here’s the story:

The Cambridge Chimes are most famous for their use in the clock at Westminster (Big Ben) and are now more commonly known as the Westminster Chimes. But they were originally composed in 1793 for use at St. Mary’s church on the campus of Cambridge University and are believed to be a derivation from a pair of measures (reputedly, the fifth and sixth) of I Know that My Redeemer Liveth from Handel’s Messiah, although no evidence has ever been found to support that claim.** The chime is composed of five measures of four notes each and set in the key of E major (or F major depending on what you read and which score you’re looking at). Measure 1 is played at the quarter hour, measures 2 and 3 are played on the half hour, measures 4, 5, and 1 are played at the quarter to, and measures 2 – 5 are played on the hour, followed by a series of strikes that indicate the hour.

Officially, credit for the composition is given to the Reverend Doctor Joseph Jowett, who was a professor of law (because…of course?), but people who know about these things believe he was most likely assisted either by Dr. John Randall, who was a professor of music, or one of Randall’s undergrads, William Crotch.

Apparently, there are also lyrics to the four-measure on-the-hour chime. The traditional lyrics to the tune are as follows: O Lord our God/Be Thou our guide/That by thy help/No foot may slide. Funnily enough, when I read the lyrics that are associated with the UK/Canadian Brownies, I feel like I knew this when I was a kid because the last two lines are familiar.*** 

Fun Fact: Big Ben refers only to the chime that announces the hour. It does not refer to the clock face, the tower itself (which was renamed from just “the clock tower” to “the Elizabeth Tower” for Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee in 2012), or any of the five measures of the Cambridge/Westminster chimes.

Autobiographical note: My favourite top of the hour clock chime is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul in Vyšehrad in Prague; it plays Smetana’s Vltava, which is both super appropriate and a wonderful piece of music — it’s the second of six pieces that make up  Má Vlast,  which, incidentally, he composed after he went completely deaf.

For more, see here, here, and here.

*Yes, sometimes a random question like this will pop into my head with zero connection to anything going on around me.

**Honestly, I don’t hear it, but I don’t have as good an ear as some.

***This also randomly just reminded me that 25 years later, for no reason, I still know the Brownie pledge  — “I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God, the Queen, and my country, to help other people every day, especially those at home.” I have (obviously) no idea if it’s still the same (probably not…I suspect God no longer makes an appearance), but there it is.

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