The Early Years of the American Foundation (part 6 of an 8-part series)

This eight-week blog series delves deeper into the history of Bok Tower Gardens and provides a rich historical accounting of the early days. The source document is from a collection of statements entitled “Its Origin, Meaning, and Purpose” created by The American Foundation, Inc. You can read the First Installment, Second Installment, Third Installment, Fourth Installment, and Fifth Installment at Blog Tower Gardens.

Written by The American Foundation’s President William G. Nagel, the sixth section discusses the musical legacy of the Singing Tower and the choice of selections played through the 1960s.

Intrinsic to the Bok Tower Gardens experience is the tower and its music. It is, many say, the finest, best maintained, and most beautifully played carillon in the world. When the Tower was created there was, within it, only the founder’s room, the bells, and the tiny elevator which led to a primitive playing cabin housing the clavier. In that non-air-conditioned room, in heat, cold, and in dripping humidity, Anton Brees played that magnificent instrument for nearly four decades.

When Milford Myhre was hired, Mrs. Bok and the Board resolved to “complete” the inside of the Tower. They engaged the world-famous architectural firm of Mitchell Guirgulla to design the changes necessary to make this Tower truly “world-class.” The result was the addition of the curator’s workshop, the library, the carillonneur’s office, and the new soundproof, air-conditioned playing cabin. These changes were paid for out of capital gains. Other changes and additions included the creation of a then state-of-the-art recording and tape playing system. The enabled the carillonneur to provide music each half-hour of the day and quality taped recitals throughout the year. These improvements were also funded by the Foundation. Recently another major up-grade has occurred funded by public money.

The carillon is an instrument capable of a range of several octaves and great volume variations. Very little of the world’s huge amount of popular, semi-classical, and classical music was written for carillon. To be played on this instrument such music must be transposed. There is, however, a significant portfolio of original carillon music, usually, but not always, written by players of the instrument. Some of this is designed to demonstrate the range of the instrument and the virtuosity of its player.

From the very early days of the Sanctuary, there has been a running debate as to what music is most suitable for a place dedicated to peaceful repose. Anton, a musician capable of playing expertly the most difficult of the carillon library, chose to offer a more familiar repertoire. In 1962, the Board caused a review to be made. It determined that Brees played 33% hymns, 44% popular music, and only 22% classic or semi-classical. This pleased much of the staff at Sanctuary that had observed, over the years what the visitors listened to. It displeased Mrs. Bok who was a patron of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and vice-president of the Curtis Institute of Music, and who desired selections that are more classical as well as increased music written expressly for the carillon. When Milford Myhre came on board, she encouraged him in that direction.

During my 14 years with the Foundation, I spent endless hours roaming the grounds during the 3 o’clock recitals trying to measure audience reaction. I concluded that the audience responded well to music it could hum. Visitors also appreciated the semi-classics and classics that blended with the restful nature of the Gardens. Visitors to my observation rejected both the erudite and raucous.