Clock Chimes and Melodies – Sounds of Comfort: Westminster, Whittington, and St. Michael Chimes (#022)

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022 - London 041 Parliment Big BenYou’ve heard of comfort food?  What about comfort sounds?

This is why mechanical clocks have presence, for which they not only attract our attention, but also subtly scribe this very presence into to our mind and heart – to be remembered throughout the cycles of our lives.  Their sounds stay in our minds from childhood and into old age.

For many, this connection is deep.  I clearly remember the sound and comfort of my grandmother’s tall clock.  The steadfast tick, quarterly melody, and symbolic hourly gong announced that all was well. It was an essential part of my surroundings. Naturally, this childhood experience influences my deep affinity for clocks.

The “value” of  a clock increases if it also plays one or multiple melodies.  Clocks that play melodies are sought after and much more desirable than clocks that only provide time or strike features.

Clocks with a melody feature typically play one – or all three – of the most popular melodies used since the late eighteenth century, when clocks where first designed with this quality; these are: the Westminster Chime, the Whittington Chime and the St. Michael Chime.

How do you know a mechanical clock plays a melody?

For spring driven clocks, there should be a third winding arbor (winding hole) on the clock dial.  This third arbor serves to wind-up the spring that provides power for the clock to play the melody (called the chime or melody train).  Most winding arbors are as follows: the center arbor is for the time (makes the clock run): the left arbor is for the strike (counts the hours) ; and the right arbor is for the melody.

022 Winding Arbors

For weight driven clocks, there should be a third weight hanging from the bottom of the clock. As with a spring drive clock, this third weight provides the power for the clock to play the melody.

Westminster Chime

The Westminster Chime is the most common and popular clock melody used. It’s also known as the Westminster Quarters or Cambridge Chimes from its orgins with the church of St Mary the Great, in Cambridge, UK. However, most associate the Westminster chimes with the Victoria Clock Tower of the House of Parliament in London – also referred to as Big Ben.

Many believe the chime was taken from the fifth and sixth measures of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Handel‘s Messiah. In 1793 this variation was composed for a new clock at the church in Cambridge. Later, in the mid-19th century, the chime was adopted for the clock tower in London. Now, Big Ben and the Westminster chime are inseparable.

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Big Ben Westminster Melody

Inscribed in the Big Ben clock room are lyrics from “I Know my Redeemer Lives”:

All through this hour
Lord, be my guide
And by Thy power
No foot shall slide

Whittington Chime

The Whittington chime is also very popular and normally a secondary chime to the Westminster melody. The Whittington chimes originally rang in the church of St. Maryle Bow, Cheapside, London in the 16th Century.

It’s believed that Dick Whittington (1354-1423) was a boy escaping misstreatment by his master’s housekeeper.  In 1392, while escaping, he heard distant chimes coming from the bell tower of the church of St. Mary le Bow, in London, saying to him: “turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London-town.”   Because of this, he returned to his master and hard work until he found his fortune and became mayor of London Town, serving four terms.

When Whittington ran for mayor of London, it is believed he used the tune as a campaign song:

Turn again Dick Whittington,
Right Lord Mayor of London Town.

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022 - Whittington Chimes

St. Michael Chime

The St. Michael Chime is one of few that originates from the United States.  The bells for this chime were cast in London to be installed in St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 1764.

The story goes: During the Revolutionary War, after the British captured Charleston, the bells were taken to England as spoils. After the war, a merchant purchased and returned the bells to Charleston, where they were re-hung in St. Michael’s church. In 1823, the bells were taken to England to be recast after cracks were found in them.

During the Civil War, the bells were taken down for safekeeping, but were damaged in a fire set by Sherman’s Army.  After the war, they were again taken to England to be restoration.  Finally, the eight bells were re-hung in St. Michael’s steeple in February 1867.  On March 21, the city celebrated as the bells rang again:

“Home again, home again, from a foreign land!”

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022 - St Michaels Chime 2

Other Chimes

There are a number of other mechanical clock chimes you’re likely to come across – most of these are heard on tower clocks:

Canterbury Chimes

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Schubert’s Ave Maria Chimes

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Ave Maria de Lourdes Chimes

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Ave Maria de Fatima Chimes

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Trinity Chimes

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Winchester Chimes

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Beethoven’s 9th Symphony Chimes

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Havenu Shalom Aleichem Chimes

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Share with us if you know of any other clock or clock tower melodies by leaving a comment to this post.

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2 Responses to Clock Chimes and Melodies – Sounds of Comfort: Westminster, Whittington, and St. Michael Chimes (#022)

  1. G.Palos August 19, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    Hey Dale! Thank you for your clarification…if you notice I made an update. So, you are now a contributor. You know another fascinating type of musical clock is the Organ Clocks…its interesting to know that Mozart, Hayden and even Beethoven wrote pieces for these types of “clocks.”

  2. Dale August 17, 2014 at 6:49 am #

    Another excellent post, this one on chiming clocks. The third train is usually called the “chime train” rather than music train in the clock literature for these quarter hour pearls. There are a class of musical clocks that can play more advanced melodies, some cuckoo’s for example, and other elaborate clocks, primarily by incorporation of a more elaborate music box.

    I always enjoy your posts. Keep up the good work.