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Of whom the bells tolled: 'Hell's Bells' peal out for chimesmaster Dick Lee '41

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Blaine Friedlander

At just past 11 a.m. June 10, all heaven broke loose from Cornell's McGraw Tower. An exhilaration of festive chimes music titled "Hell's Bells" flushed a robin from its chilly perch, drew clusters of Cornell-red-bedecked alumni and marked the start of a 45-minute recital of compositions by Richard (Dick) H. Lee, Class of '41, who earlier had climbed the 161 steps to the top of the tower.

A highlight of Reunion 2006, the recital included 22 pieces from Lee's celebrated "Bellman's Suite," composed for the Cornell chimes while he was a student here. Lee, who said his music is divinely inspired, is one of Cornell's oldest living chimesmasters. His numerous works for the instrument as well as choral groups are still performed on campus.

"All these pieces were written with the chimes in mind," said Keith Jenkins '93, who performed the June 10 recital with fellow chimesmaster Jennifer Lory-Moran '96, '97. "It's very appropriate for the instrument -- as opposed to some pieces arranged from orchestral scores that sometimes work -- and sometimes, don't."

That doesn't make them easy, said Lory-Moran, "but musically they are very rewarding to play."

"Hell's Bells" sounded an exuberant rebuke to the unseasonably cold, wet morning, while some of the more solemn pieces that followed lent a forgiving poignancy to the almost Scottish pall cast over the region.

Lee, sporting a blithe air of agelessness, eagerly ascended to the top of the tower accompanied by his wife, Laurie Lee. It was his second trip up the stairs in two days.

"We think of this as natural -- why should we speak about limitations?" said Laurie Lee. "It's just like visiting someone on the seventh floor of a walk-up in Manhattan."

On the ascent Lee was greeted by Lory-Moran just outside the chimes practice room, where she and Jenkins were "wood-shedding" sections of the "Bellman's Suite." As he resumed his climb, strains from "Andante con Moto" set a gentle tempo and reflective mood for the remainder of the ascent.

Once atop the tower Lee expressed delight and surprise when he noted that Jenkins was going to perform barefoot -- a common practice among some chimesmasters who must deftly manipulate foot pedals.

As the recital progressed, reunion celebrants gathered in the McGraw lobby, in Sage Chapel and in the walkway below the tower to listen to the concert. Many alumni stood outside the tower, awaiting their chance to climb up to meet the composer and take in the view, reacquainting their eyes with a fresh imprint of their postcard memories of Cornell.

Mike Mage '55, a former chimesmaster, was among those visiting the tower.

"Even in my time he was a legend to the chimesmasters," said Mage. "Anyone who took a look at his music could see it was orders of magnitude better than any of the other music up there."

Mage also mentioned Lee's pamphlet on the Cornell chimes, something of both a moral and technical guide to proper performance of the instrument, which is still given to all Cornell chimesmasters.

On June 9, the Cornell Glee Club performed Lee's "Strike Up a Song to Cornell," and conductor Scott Tucker acknowledged the composer during the Sage Chapel performance.

"We all sang along," said Laurie Lee. "When they introduced Dick, someone turned around and said, 'Gee, you're still kicking!'"

Lee, who is a descendant of the Virginia Lees, including Robert E. Lee, was grateful to be honored with a recital of his music.

"That does wonders for me," he said. "And the way they are playing it is beautiful."

A recording of the concert will eventually be available at the Campus Store, said Laurie Lee. All proceeds will go to the Cornell chimes.


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Franklin Crawford