There’s a wizard in a tower in Richmond, but his magic is musical in nature.
He’s Larry Robinson, official carillonneur for the city of Richmond and master of the War Memorial Carillon Tower in Byrd Park.
A carillon is a musical instrument that’s a kissing cousin of an organ and piano, but it plays bells. The Byrd Park carillon is a beast, a massive amalgamation of wood levers, a pedalboard and 53 bells that takes up two of the top stories in the 240-foot-tall tower.
The carillon and tower date from the 1920s and are a tribute to soldiers from Richmond who lost their lives in World War I. Robinson has been playing the instrument since the summer of 1960. He was at the keyboard recently for the annual Memorial Day observance, serenading participants with an array of patriotic tunes and period music.
The bells are about seven stories up, and the keyboard is in an enclosed room just beneath them that’s surprisingly quiet as he performs. He has to open a trap door to the bell floor so he can hear what he’s playing.
A performance is a workout, and Robinson is in constant motion. There’s a pedal board to work by foot and the keyboard is a series of wood rods manipulated with a touch of the wrist instead of by finger. You don’t literally bang out a tune, though: It requires a deft, precise touch to get the right pitch and tone. Robinson wears open gloves to protect against repetitive motion injury and blisters. (He once blistered his hands in an hour-long performance at the carillon near Arlington National Cemetery).
Performances come with unique problems. For example, when the Richmond Symphony performs Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” for the Fourth of July, Anderson makes the bells ring, but to do so requires adjusting for a four-second or so delay in sound traveling between the tower and the symphony concert site. He has to keep a window open so he can hear the symphony.
A carillon is an unusual instrument, but Robinson is a pianist and organist (he was a music instructor for 32 years full time and then 10 years part-time before retiring from Virginia Commonwealth University), which helped in learning the carillon.
“I’ve played keyboard instruments all my life,” he said. “It made (for) an easy transition for me.”
He also served as organist for 30 years for Leigh Street Baptist Church in Richmond.
Robinson had only filled in a few times at the carillon when his predecessor left in 1959 for a position with a large church in Chicago, but he was willing to take on the job and continue the Richmond tradition.
“Here was little me without much experience, but I just had to keep it going,” he said.
The tower itself is a special place for Robinson.
He plays the instrument in a cramped, claustrophobic room dominated by the instrument and a practice instrument that actually sounds louder in the room when played than the bells themselves. The original blueprints for the tower are kept here, as is a trunk filled with World War I mementoes that were put on display downstairs for Memorial Day.
The tower level with the bells is open and airy. Downtown businesses are taller, but the carillon tower is on the highest point in the city and offers stunning views in all directions.
It’s from this level that Robinson used to enjoy watching the annual July 4 fireworks. They explode basically at eye level here, but there’s a tradeoff if the wind is in the wrong direction and blows smoke in his direction.
Robinson is almost as enthusiastic as he operates the creaky elevator in the tower as he is at the carillon keyboard. It’s hand operated and judging by the certificate on its panel, was last inspected when Bill Clinton was in his first term in the White House.
It moves in fits and starts, but Robinson only noted that there’s only been one malfunction, and that came early on in his tenure, when one of his students was in the elevator when it stopped high up between floors. Fortunately, there was a rotary telephone and she was able to call for help. She had to be taken out through the roof hatch.
Robinson has amassed a slew of honors, awards and accolades for his first 50 years of service, but with no plans to retire, he will have to make room on the shelf for more.
He loves what he does, and just to have attained fame around Richmond is his definition of success.
“Some people have worldwide fame, but that’s alright. I’m not greedy.”
WHO: Larry Robinson, carillionneur, city of Richmond
ON THE JOB SINCE: Summer, 1960
ABOUT THE INSTRUMENT: The War Memorial Carillon at Byrd Park has 53 bells and plays 53 notes. It was built by John Taylor Bell Founders of England, according to information from the city of Richmond. The tower is 240 feet high.
HEAR HIM: Robinson will perform for the Fourth of July at Byrd Park.
SEE HIM: See our Facebook page for a video of Robinson performing at the recent Memorial Day concert at the park.