Making music with a bevy of bells. Carillonneur Robert Pfleiderer likens his art to a `sermon in bells'

Tires hum on the asphalt. Heels click-clack on the sidewalk. Horns honk. Voices mingle. And above this city cacophony floats a more melodious ceiling of sound: bells playing Bach. The music wafts from the tower of the Indianapolis Scottish Rite Cathedral, where the 54-bell carillon is being played by octogenarian Robert J. Pfleiderer.

He's a musician whose physique (pole-slim) seems more suited to dulcimers and zithers than bronze bells weighing a total of 56,372 pounds. But his appearance is a fooler - Mr. Pfleiderer carries a powerhouse of strength in his limbs. If he didn't, that carillon would stand mute, because it requires sturdy arms, hands, legs, and feet to generate music from this bevy of bells.

Here's how Pfleiderer accomplishes his feat. High in a tower room, he sits in front of a wooden contraption that, to the untrained eye, looks like a loom without the weaving. It's really a clavier equipped with multiple pedals similar to an organ's, plus 54 levers corresponding to some of a piano's black and white keys. With loosely closed fists, Pfleiderer hammers on the levers. With his feet, he plays the pedals. With his eyes, he reads the music. All at once. Obviously, coordination is a key to being a carillonneur.

Both pedals and levers are hitched to wires that connect mechanically - not electrically - with the bells' clappers up in the top of the tower. Although there's a lever for each bell, it's easier to play the heavy bells (up to 5.6 tons of bronze) with the foot pedals.

The bells never swing to toll their tunes; instead, they're stationary and resound when struck by the iron clappers. If you're standing a quarter of a mile away, you'll hear them - despite the urban noise.

As Pfleiderer will readily tell you, having only two fists presents problems when the carillon music calls for four-note chords in the upper octaves. What does he do? He strikes the four notes, lickety-split in succession. If he's fast enough - and he always is - the sounds intertwine, and the listener's ear hears a chord instead of single notes.

Playing a series of chords can be quite taxing. So can Matthias van den Gheyn's Prelude No. 2, which Pfleiderer performed during the interview.

At its completion, he didn't wait for compliments or applause, he simply peered over thick-lensed spectacles and said, ``Did you know Paul Revere made bells after the Revolution?''

Then he slid from his bench and led the way through the cathedral, built in Tudor style with Gothic embellishment. There's statuary, carving, and here and there stained glass windows sprinkle colored patterns on marble floors.

In some niches, the Tudor architecture breathes heavily, making it easy to conjure up images of Anne Boleyn, unwary of her doom, or hear in memory the Bard's lines of heavy portent.

A spiral staircase rises through the Gothic tower, an area generally closed to the public. The steps are steep; the light, dim. But at the tower's top, the wind plays games in the open-air ``room'' where the bells hang ready to tumble their notes down to the sidewalk, more than 200 feet below.

Pfleiderer plays the carillon on major holidays, for special events at the cathedral, and at ``other times,'' he says, indicating a flexible concert schedule. But the performances heralded by many are at 5 on Sunday afternoons in June. It's then that the nearby park turns into a modern-day scene of Seurat's ``La Grande Jatte,'' as listeners stroll and sit on the green.

For these concerts, he'll play mostly semi-classical and hymns with a touch of classical. ``Greensleeves'' is sure to be on the program because that's a Pfleiderer favorite. ``But no jazz,'' he says. ``I don't care for that.''

The carillon is capable of complex music because it has at least 23 bells. Not so for the chime (singular), a tower instrument with fewer bells, usually eight to 15. It's suited only for playing a melody or simple two-part harmony.

By contrast, chimes (plural) are the tubular bells heard in clocks, doorbells, and at orchestral performances.

Pfleiderer is a member of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America (GCNA) which organized in the mid '30s to further the carillon art. Each carillonneur must pass a concert examination before admission to the guild, and Pfleiderer presented his half-hour exam program in 1967 at the Peace Tower, Houses of Parliament in Ottawa.

Although he was a civil engineer by profession, Pfleiderer has had keyboard connections almost all his life. At 6, he was already playing the piano. A short time later, he sat on a horsehair stool at Sunday school, playing the pump organ. ``I never got to pump myself, though,'' he says. ``I was too short. Two ladies did that.''

Pfleiderer, a retiree and widower, is a member of the Scottish Rite, a Masonic order dedicated to promoting brotherhood. The organization's cathedral, which is only a few blocks from the city's center, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Pfleiderer's first musical capacity at the cathedral was serving as organ soloist and piano accompanist for the Scottish Rite chorus, a post he held for 37 years.

It was in 1960 that he was introduced to the cathedral's carillon. He subsequently studied with Milford Myhre, a past president of the GCNA and current president of the World Carillon Federation.

Pfleiderer is now getting ready for his June concerts, which will go on rain or shine. Even if he sits solo amid a downpour, he'll perform.

``I'll be frank,'' he says, ``there's an inner peace that comes when I play the carillon. It's like I'm performing a sermon in bells.''

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