Ronald Barnes, 1927-1997
Ronald Montague Barnes was born and brought up in Lincoln,
Nebraska. In 1931, at about age four, he believed that his parents took him to hear
Anton Brees dedicate the Taylor carillon at First Plymouth Congregational
Church. He recalled an evening along the streets in the neighborhood, with
everyone's attention focused on a light high in the tower. Then, as a teenager,
he began organ study with Myron Roberts, the church's organist, who one day
asked Ron if he would consider learning to play the carillon as well, since
Mary Guest, the woman then playing, planned to move away.
Ron ascended the tower to watch her
style="mso-spacerun: yes"> play. She played only melodies, using
only the bottom two octaves and grasping the keys chime-style. When he asked
her why she did not also use the higher notes she replied that they didn't
work, and, sure enough, when he tried one of the keys it would not move. A few
days later he and his older brother Bryce made their way into the bell chamber
for the first time (in those days a hazardous climb indeed), and he realized
for the first time that each of those other notes actually had a bell attached
The two young men carried twelve bushel baskets full of dead
pigeons, droppings, and other dirt down the narrow stairway and out of the
tower. To the best of their amateur skills, they cleaned and lubricated the
playing action, disassembling some of it. On the Sunday after they finished,
Ronald went up to play. He possessed no carillon music, so he simply played
scales up and down the compass. Neighbors immediately began phoning, wanting to
know when the church had gotten additional bells. So far as he could determine,
nobody had played the small bells on that carillon since Anton Brees'
dedicatory recitals more that a decade earlier!
At the end of World War II Barnes served in the US Navy in
Japan during the occupation, on a destroyer tender as a specialist working with
navigational instruments, and later as a helmsman on a destroyer. Afterwards he
used the GI Bill to earn a Master of Arts degree in musicology at Stanford
University, where for his thesis he wrote a study of the carillon preludes of
Matthias van den Gheyn. He attended his first GCNA congress in 1948 at Ann
Arbor, where he, Theophil Rusterholz, and Bertram Strickland played their
Following the congress he spent the summer in Ottawa with
Robert Donnell, which proved to be his only formal study of the carillon. He
returned to Lincoln, from whence he reported in the May 1950 edition of the
Bulletin that the audiences for his summer Sunday evening recitals had grown
large enough to interest the operators of ice cream wagons, complete with the
little bells on the truck roofs.
In 1951 he accepted an appointment at the large new Taylor
carillon in Lawrence, Kansas, which he said was the finest in the world at the
time. While on the University of Kansas faculty he also taught harpsichord and
music history, and cared for the university's instrument collection. In 1963 he
again accepted an appointment to play a brand new Taylor carillon, which he
again thought the best carillon in the world, this time at the Washington
During the Lawrence and Washington years he wrote a good
number of arrangements and several new compositions, but the flow of works from
his pen grew to an impressive scale only in the late 1970s. Cathedral politics
had proved destructively stressful, but the 1975 decision to abolish his position
in response to a financial emergency perversely freed him to regain the measure
of personal stability that could release his creative powers. In 1982 he
returned to California to preside over the Class of 1928 Carillon at the
University of California at Berkeley, from which he retired in 1995 after
thirteen highly productive years.
The GCNA held congresses at each of his three towers,
beginning in Kansas in 1956. He served as President of the Guild during part of
the 1960s, and for seven years during the 1950s as editor of the Bulletin. He
gave his last performance for the Guild on his first carillon, in Lincoln, at
the 1993 congress. He attended his last congress, only five months before his
death, at his beloved instrument in Lawrence.
I had met Ronald several times before I moved to Berkeley in
1983. When I decided to accept a place in the entering law school class, I
contacted him to ask if he needed an assistant. It turned out that one of his
assistants had just resigned, and he welcomed me. He became a close personal
friend, as I struggled with the tensions of law school and later of law
practice, providing support (and wit) of immeasurable value. He became a
trusted musical confidante. Although second-rate playing and literature both
annoyed him greatly, he rarely offered a performer criticism of a recital, even
to the players on his personal staff, unless the performer specifically asked
for it. Then, when asked, his insights into both the performance and the music
continually reminded us that he possessed knowledge of things unknown to the
rest of us. The teacher under whom I had taken brief formal study had given me
good technical grounding that Ronald claimed not to have himself, but in our
unstructured years together as performers he showed me far more than anyone
else ever had about our instrument and its unique personality.
His personal encouragement gave us several of the most
important composers to write for the carillon in our time, among them Roy
Hamlin Johnson, John Pozdro, and Gary White. He played pivotal roles in
starting and nurturing the carillon careers of some of our most distinguished
players as well, including Milford Myhre, Richard Strauss, and Daniel Robbins.
He wrote provocatively and with penetrating insight several times for the
Bulletin, encouraging us to set new standards for quality of performance,
choice of repertory, and sophistication in the design and construction of
instruments. But there is no doubt in my mind that the contribution that
overshadows all others was his own contribution to our instrument's musical
His failing eyesight brought his performing to an end in
1994 and later interrupted his composing at a moment when he had several
interesting works in draft, and doubtless many more yet unconceived. But he
retained his keen ear and mind into retirement. He followed the course of the
search for his successor closely, expressing great relief when he saw his
Berkeley instrument pass into talented young hands.
By late spring 1997 he did not feel well. After he learned
in late summer that he had leukemia, the first thing he said to me was that he
hoped he could hang on long enough to attend the International Festival at Lake
Wales in February, but neither he nor the festival were granted the honor. At
about dawn on 3 November 1997, Ron Barnes departed his ravaged flesh to move on
to the next life. He left behind a community of musicians on whose most
fundamental notions of their instrument he had left his deep imprint.
Remembering a good friend
My first experience in playing the carillon was at Central
Christian Church in San Antonio, Texas, in 1958. That same year I discovered
Ronald Barnes at The University of Kansas at Lawrence, so I knew Ron for about
40 years. At that time South Texas was on the edge of the carillon world, and I
was desperate for help and guidance. Ron gave me carillon lessons and advice by
When we first met in person during the summer of 1962 in
Kansas, I was on my way to Ann Arbor to play my advancement recital and I
wanted to play the program for someone. I remember very well missing every
pedal on his Kansas instrument, since I was used to my carillon's Dutch
standard, and this was the first carillon I had ever played that didn't have
those tall black pedal keys. Ron was very understanding and encouraging to a
beginner and almost a total stranger. At that time he allowed me to take home
to copy whatever I wanted from his library. This was before the days of
photocopying, and music had to be copied by hand. This took several months, but
I finally mailed his music back to him. Ron had always been extremely generous
both with his time and his music library.
My first GCNA congress was at Ann Arbor in 1962. I remember
being very impressed with Ron, because he had transposed his recital for that
carillon so that it would sound in the same keys in which the pieces were
written. This was the congress that Percival Price had the University Choir up
in the tower along with a bagpiper, and people were hitting long boards that
were suspended in the tower. This congress also included the famous playing of
The Bells of Hell with car horn ad lib. Ron wrote to me on 26 June 1962
concerning that congress: "I hope that you enjoyed the Congress and got
something out of it. They are usually hectic, disorganized, and crazy, but also
fun and frequently informative and instructive."
Ron loved to laugh. Not only was he humorous in his
conversation, he reveled in telling funny stories, jokes, and actual anecdotes.
We all know of Ron's fondness for organ recitals. He once wrote about a friend
who was to play an organ recital at the National Shrine: "However, I don't
know if I will hear him play or not. I've already heard an organ recital."
Before his carillon recital in San Antonio at Christmas 1979
he wrote in a letter: "The little 'Fanfare' you requested has turned out
to be an 'Introit' instead, since I don't know how to write music that sounds
like 'hay and the manger' as you requested." He had a marvelous way with
words, command of language, extensive vocabulary, and an amazing quick wit.
During his playing of Serenade for Carillon at the 1978
Congress at Christ Church Cranbrook, I was aware for the first time that I was
not listening to just a carillon recital, but I was listening to music that
happened to be played on the carillon. Ron was one of the few people who could
do this. He was a wonderful musician whose instrument of choice was the
Over the years, Ron, Tom and I took many trips to Mexico
during Christmas breaks. In typical Ron fashion, he researched Mexico and knew
the mountains, architecture, art, literature, history, and culture better than
Tom and I did, and we live only 150 miles from the border. In reading one guide
book Ron came upon a delightful saying that has entered into our language:
"Wherever you go, there you are."
Over the years, Ron became one of our best friends, even
though we never even lived in the same city. He was a most remarkable person.
Many thanks to the carillon for bringing us together.
Ronald Barnes was a true Renaissance type of person. He had
expertise in so many different categories: performer, composer, teacher,
graphic artist, humorist, and even philosopher. He could converse intelligently
on almost any subject and could inspire others to attain levels of achievement
far beyond anything they could imagine. His interest in the history of the
instrument, coupled with his excellent memory for detail, gave him an enviable
breadth of knowledge.
With his passing the carillon world has lost one of its
greatest advocates. His interest in this strange and wonderful instrument was
unlimited. It embraced all facets of playing technique, composition, bell
founding, playing mechanism, tower design, and recording techniques. Nothing escaped
his scrutiny, much to the delight of all who enjoyed his searing wit. His loyal
friendship and generosity were models for us all. May we now honor his memory
by emulating his best qualities and playing his music with great devotion and
With the passage of Ronald Barnes,
yes"> the carillon world has lost a primary mover in the artistic
evolution of what he often called "the world's largest recital
instrument." Through his performing and composing, he asserted the value of
his chosen medium as being at least equal to that of the traditional keyboard
instruments in their capacity to convey expressions of the human spirit.
Further, by discarding the cliches and shop-worn technical devices of
Post-Romantic carillon academies, and by basing his style on his instrument's
unique physical properties, he produced and encouraged fresh solutions to
universal musical problems of sonority, tonality, and structure.
He helped many composers, including me, to find their
"carillon voices." It is safe to say that the notes for carillon
penned by these persons would not have found their way to paper, had it not
been for his profound insights, continuous enthusiasm, and merciless wit.
--Roy Hamlin Johnson