When someone asks you to hum the Westminster chime, chances are, you know exactly what they’re talking about. That graceful 4-note melody is as distinctive to clocks as it is ingrained in our souls. But what is it, and why is that chime used in clocks? What about the other chimes? Where do they come from and why are they used?
Let’s jump right in and examine each of the main chimes!
1. Westminster Chimes
This famous chime gets its name from the Palace of Westminster in London, England where the classic “Big Ben” clock hangs and is considered to be the most commonly used chime for striking clocks. It makes up a set of variations of 4 notes from “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from the German Baroque composer George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah (we’re taking Wikipedia’s word on this one because we listened to about twelve different variations of this song and can’t hear the similarities). The song ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’ was first composed in 1741, and its creator is also the reason why the song plays in the bells of the ‘Red Tower’ in Halle, the town Handel was originally from. The Westminster chime as we know it today, however, wasn’t created until 1793 when a new clock was being built in St Mary the Great, the University Church in Cambridge. Who actually composed the chime, the Revd Dr Joseph Jowett (who was the Regius Professor of Civil Law at the University of Cambridge at the time he was first given the job) or an assistant (either Dr John Randall, Professor of Music or an undergraduate student named William Crotch) is up for debate, but this original location is also why you may hear the Westminster chime referred to as the Cambridge Quarter. The chime spread to the U.S. where it was first sounded at Trinity Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in December 1875.
2. St. Michael’s Chimes
Named after the St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, these chimes are as American as, well…America! Although the bells were originally cast in London, they were installed in St. Michael’s in 1764. During the Revolutionary war, the city of Charleston was captured by the British and the bells were taken to England, only to be returned to Charleston by a London merchant after the war. In 1823, they were again sent back to England to be recast after cracks were found in the bells, and then came back to Charleston, only to be moved again, this time to Colombia for safe keeping during the Civil War—only this time they didn’t quite make it to their destination unscathed as they were damaged in a fire set by Union General William Sherman, known for his stance on “harsh war” tactics that involved scorched earth policies and waging total war against the Confederate States (yikes!). After the war, the bells made a third trip back to England for restoration, and finally were reinstalled in St. Michael’s Church steeple in 1867, where they have (thankfully) remained to this day.
3. Whittington Chimes
For these chimes, we have to go back to a little area in 14th century London called Cheapside, which actually doesn’t have anything to do with a bargain or poor quality like you might imagine—Cheapside gets its name from the Old English ceapan, which means ‘to buy,’ and was traditionally the marketplace of any urban area. As the story goes, in 1392 a young boy named Dick Whittington, a younger son without a claim to the family fortune and unhappy apprentice, ran away from his master through Cheapside and heard the tune ringing from the bell tower of the church of St Mary-le-Bow. The bells seemed to be saying to him, “Turn again Dick Whittington,” and so he turned around, went back to London, and found his fortune (and later became the Lord Mayor of London four times). During three of his mayoral campaigns, legend has it that Whittington used the tune as his campaign song which goes:
Turn again Dick Whittington,
Right Lord Mayor of London Town.
4. Ave Maria
This Hail Mary chime was originally composed by Franz Schubert as a prayer of safety for Ellen Douglas (who is also the main protagonist in Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake) and it was originally titled “Ellens dritter Gesang” or Ellen’s Third Song after being inspired by Scott’s poem. In the poem, Ellen is travelling with her exiled father and sings a prayer to the Virgin Mary calling upon her help and comfort in the rebellion between her Scottish clan and King James. She and her father are hiding in a cave at the time she sings this prayer. The opening words of the tune are ‘Ave Maria,’ which means ‘Hail Mary,’ and this may have led to the adapting of the song to the full text of the Roman Catholic church prayer Ave Maria, but don’t let this confuse you—it’s a misconception that Schubert originally wrote the melody as the setting for the Catholic prayer!
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish’d, outcast and reviled –
Maiden! Hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
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