Big Ben chimes inspire new 3/4

The Palace of Westminster with Big Ben on the right.

Inspiration comes from many places. For G. S. MacLennan, for exampe, it was a dripping tap that inspired him to create The Little Cascade. For Donald MacLeod, it was seemingly the sound of some pipers throwing up on a bus returning from a pipe band competition that lay behind his jig, Glasgow City Police Pipers.

For piper James R. Johnson, MD, who works as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, the Westminster chimes were the source for his latest composition. His tune is called simply, The Chimes.

The Westminster Quarters (or Westminster Chimes, from its use at the Palace of Westminster in London, England) is a melody used by a set of striking clock bells to mark each quarter-hour. It is also known as the Cambridge Quarters or Cambridge Chimes from its place of origin, the church of St Mary the Great, Cambridge.

This chime is believed to be a set of variations on the four notes that make up the fifth and sixth bars of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ from Handel’s Messiah. In 1851, the chime was adopted for the new clock at the Palace of Westminster, where Big Ben hangs. It is now one of the most commonly used chimes for striking clocks.

The melody was written in 1793 though there is some doubt as to who composed it. James has turned the melody into a nice 3/4 march and has allowed us to reproduce the tune here:

Jim, who is a member of the Minnesota Piobaireachd Society, gave the tune its first airing at the group’s recent session.

Here it is here:

Jim Johnson, pictured, is no stranger to composing and arranging. The Piping Times of December 2019 included a feature on his bagpipe arrangement of Händel’s Hallelujah chorus and his arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon in D was pubished in the October 2019 Piping Times.

Readers may be familiar with this arrangement as it was provided to the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band in 1988 and the first published audio recording on bagpipe of a reduction of this score appears on the band’s The Silver Anniversary Tribute album from 1991.

On its 2005 album, On Home Ground – Volume One the full pipe corps of the band performed and recorded a reduction of the piece.

Jim told “My composition consists of the first 32 notes (8 bars) of the Westminster Chimes tone row. This is once through its five unique bars (20 notes), plus a partial repeat (first three 3 bars: 12 notes).

Westminster Chimes‘ bar four (‘dominant’ feel) and bar three (‘tonic’ feel) fall at the middle and end of the parts in The Chimes, analogous to Westminster Chimes‘ use of bar one (‘dominant’) to mark the quarter and three quarters hour, and bars three and five (‘tonic’) to mark the half hour and hour.

The Chimes uses pibroch’s thumb variation approach to derive part two from part one.

“To conclude, The Chimes returns to line two of part one – as do many ceòl beag tunes and some pibrochs, e.g., MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart and Struan Robertson.

The Chimes uses ceòl beag rhythmic motifs with the Westminster Chimes‘ tone row to fit the 3/4 march idiom and to bring out the desired chord progression.”

.Westminster Chimes schematic.