The Westminster Quarters is the name for a melody used by a set of striking clock bells to mark each quarter-hour. The number of chime sets matches the number of quarter hours that have passed. It is also known as the Westminster Chimes, from its use at the Palace of Westminster, or the Cambridge Quarters from its place of origin, the church of St Mary the Great, Cambridge.
The notes used are:
- G♯4, F♯4, E4, B3
- E4, G♯4, F♯4, B3
- E4, F♯4, G♯4, E4
- G♯4, E4, F♯4, B3
- B3, F♯4, G♯4, E4
played as three crotchets (quarter note) and a minim (half note). These are always played in the order 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and each set is used twice every hour. Set 1 is played at the first quarter, sets 2 and 3 at the half, sets 4, 5 and 1 at the third quarter, and sets 2, 3, 4 and 5 at the hour, as follows. Note that these sounds have been recreated as electronic, midi files and do not necessarily represent the actual sounds of the bells:
|Full hour (3 o'clock example):|
The full hour chime is followed by one strike for the number of the hour by Big Ben (E3) (one strike for one o'clock, two strikes for two o'clock, and so on).
In other words, the cycle of five (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) is played twice in the course of an hour. For a clock chiming mechanism, this has the advantage that the mechanism that trips the hammers need only store five sequences (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) instead of ten. The mechanism then plays two complete sets of five sequences for each complete hour. In musical terms, the first and third quarters finish on the dominant (B), while the second and fourth quarters (the half and full hours) finish on the tonic (E). This produces the satisfying musical effect that has contributed to the popularity of the chimes. Note that the pitch of the Big Ben clip is closer to F than E in modern concert pitch.
It was written in 1793 for a new clock in St Mary the Great, the University Church in Cambridge. There is some doubt over exactly who composed it: Revd Dr Joseph Jowett, Regius Professor of Civil Law, was given the job, but he was probably assisted by either Dr John Randall (1715–99), who was the Professor of Music from 1755, or his brilliant undergraduate pupil, William Crotch (1775–1847). This chime is traditionally, though without substantiation, 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. This is why the chime is also played by the bells of the so-called 'Red Tower' in Halle, the native town of Handel.
In 1851, the chime was adopted by Edmund Beckett Denison (an amateur horologist, and graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, who was very familiar with the St Mary's chime) for the new clock at the Palace of Westminster, where Big Ben hangs. From there its fame spread. It is now one of the most commonly used chimes for striking clocks.
According to the church records of Trinity Episcopal Church (Williamsport, Pennsylvania), this chime sequence was incorporated into a tower clock mechanism by the E. Howard & Co., Boston, MA. The clock and chime in Trinity's steeple base was dedicated in December 1875. It holds the distinction of being the first tower clock in the United States to sound the Cambridge Quarters.
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- The chime is also used in some doorbells and school bells. Most schools in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea play the chimes to signal the end and beginning of classes.
- The chime is used as the signal for counting the quorum in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong.
- Some electronic civil defense sirens in the United States manufactured by Federal Signal Corporation such as the Electronic Outdoor Warning Siren (EOWS), Modulator, and the Directional Speaker Array (DSA) sound off the chimes on a daily basis. It is also used in Japan and the Philippines by some loudspeakers installed in public areas as a time signal.
- On the Japanese game show Panel Quiz Attack 25, which airs on TV Asahi, the chimes signal the end of the game when there are any boxes left on the board.
- In Indonesia, train stations play the chimes as a sign of train departure and arrival. Upon arrival of a train, the chimes will be looped continuously until it departs from the station, which may last up to 10–15 minutes.
- In Ralph Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony, the half hour (2/3) of the Westminster Quarters is heard near the beginning of the work and the first three phrases of the hour (2/3/4) near the end.
- Louis Vierne's organ piece Carillon de Westminster is a set of variations on one of the five chimes.
- Cyrillus Kreek's Requiem (1927) uses the chimes in the Introitus.
- The rock band U2 incorporated the Third Quarter chime as a guitar harmonic in the song "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" in 1980.
- At Yankee Stadium, the chimes are played whenever a member of the New York Yankees scores a run, a tradition that began at their original ballpark.
- For the satirical TV series Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, about a British politician and his interactions with the civil servants who nominally serve him, the theme music was composed by Ronnie Hazlehurst and is largely based on the chimes (though with a longer duration for the first note of each quarter, which arguably makes the derivation less obvious). When asked in an interview about its Westminster influence, Hazlehurst replied, "That's all it is. It's the easiest thing I've ever done."
- In Kintetsu Nagoya Station of Nagoya, Japan, Kintetsu Railway uses a combination of this tone together with sections from "Waves of the Danube" as the departure melody for its limited express services departing from Nagoya towards Osaka since 1978.
The prayer inscribed on a plaque in the Big Ben clock room reads:
- All through this hour
- Lord be my guide
- That by Thy power
- No foot shall slide.
The conventional prayers are:
- O Lord our God
- Be Thou our guide
- That by thy help
- No foot may slide.
An alternative prayer changes the third line:
- O Lord our God
- Be Thou our guide
- So by Thy power
- No foot shall slide.
A variation on this, to the same tune, is prayed at the end of a Brownie meeting in the UK and Canada:
- Oh Lord our God
- Thy children call
- Grant us Thy peace
- And bless us all, Amen.
- Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference 2004
- Claimed for example by Harrison, "Tolling Time", note 16 in Music Theory Online 6/4, October 2000.
- "What tune does Big Ben chime? And everything else you wanted to know about the country's most famous bell". Classic FM. Retrieved 26 February 2019.
- "History". trinity-williamsport.diocpa.org. Retrieved 26 February 2019.
- Widiarini (17 February 2017). "Yang Kadang Terlupa dari Stasiun Terbesar di Semarang". detikTravel (in Indonesian). Retrieved 16 June 2019.
- Pilkington, Ed (19 September 2008). "New York Yankees say goodbye to cathedral of baseball". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
- "BBC New Talent: Advice for new TV composers". BBC. Retrieved 2 September 2006.
- McKay, Chris (2010). Big Ben: the Great Clock and the Bells at the Palace of Westminster. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191615085. Retrieved 2 August 2017.
- The parish of St Mary the Great with St Michael, Cambridge
- The Straight Dope on the Westminster Quarters
- The Cambridge Chimes
- A music theory article on the Westminster Quarters and other clock chimes
- Rochester Quarters
- 1941 British Horological Institute article on chimes rarely encountered by clock repairers