A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Who wrote the clock chime tune?

April 30, 1999

Dear Cecil:

Almost every bell tower I've heard chime the time precedes its hourly announcement with a musical preamble--a simple, beautiful tune we all know. It has four measures, each four notes long and then a rest before the next measure begins. What is this thing? Who penned it, and is he pulling in residuals?

Cecil replies:

Fat lot of good it would do him--the guy's been cold for a couple hundred years. But at least we know who he is.

What you're referring to is the best-known of all clock chimes, the Westminster Quarters. According to tradition, the words to the tune are, "Oh, Lord our God / Be thou our guide / That by thy help / No foot may slide." The melody was written by one William Crotch in 1794. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, it consists of four variations on the fifth and sixth bars of "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth," one of the pieces in Handel's Messiah. Crotch persuaded the powers that be to use the tune for the chimes of the new Cambridge University clock in Saint Mary the Great Church. The tune was later copied by the proprietors of other clock towers, most notably in the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, from which its fame spread around the world.

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