The University of Washington’s new carillon, a 47-bell musical instrument, sounded out across the Seattle campus Thursday. The $1.1 million gift comes from Gordon Stuart Peek, a former UW history professor, who was there for its first concert.

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Forty-seven Dutch-made bells came to life on the University of Washington campus Thursday when a visiting musician gave the inaugural concert on the school’s new carillon.

On the ground below, students hurrying to class in a drizzle paused, looked up in surprise, and listened.

It’s a gift from 92-year-old Gordon Stuart Peek, a former UW history professor who first fell in love with the sound of bells on campus when he was growing up in nearby Wallingford.

Carillon Bells above UW’s Red Square were dedicated today with a concert by Wesley Arai. Raw video by Steve Ringman

On Thursday, surrounded by about 40 friends and former students, Peek — looking dapper in a tweed jacket and tie — sat in a place of honor on Red Square, under a canopy in the rain, and listened intently to his $1.1 million gift to the university.

UW’s new carillon is “a gorgeous instrument,” said carillonneur Wesley Arai, who has played 40 to 50 carillons around the country.

“It’s really mellow,” he said. “It’s well-balanced, very sweet.”

The instrument is mounted atop a brick ventilation shaft on the east side of Kane Hall, and is visible from Red Square. The carillonneur sits underneath the bells, in a small, glassed-in cabin that houses the upright-piano-sized part of the instrument, and plays it by depressing wooden batons and foot pedals.

On Thursday, Arai was laser-focused on his music despite a gaggle of photographers and reporters, who crowded around him with their iPhones, microphones and TV cameras trained on his hands and his feet as he played.

Because it’s entirely mechanical, playing the carillon can be a physical workout. Arai wears a pair of green Converse when he plays because their smooth, flat soles help him keep control of the foot pedals.

For Thursday’s performance, he began with “Preludio V,” a composition written in the 1700s by Matthias van den Gheyn, then played “Bist du bei mir” from “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach” by Johann Sebastian Bach and “Ode to Joy” from Symphony No. 9 by Ludwig van Beethoven. He ended with the UW’s own fight song, “Bow Down to Washington,” by Lester J. Wilson.

Peek’s first memory of bells on the UW campus was in the early 1930s, when as a child his father took him to listen to the bells donated in 1912 by the Blethen family, founders of The Seattle Times, and hung on a water tower.

That tradition ended in 1949 when the water tower burned to the ground.

Starting in the 1950s, the university used a synthesizer and another instrument consisting of vacuum tubes to play bell-like music from Denny Hall. It was, confusingly, also called a carillon, although it was not a real one. (Denny Hall is also the home of a solitary bell that has been part of the university since its founding in 1861, and is often rung during homecoming.)

In 2008, Peek brought real bell music back to the UW when he gave a set of bells, also cast in The Netherlands, to the UW. They were installed at Gerberding Hall.

The carillon, which has more bells than the ones in Gerberding and can be used for a wider range of music, is more like a cross between an organ and a piano. It’s the first such instrument in Western Washington.

The university is still working on a performance schedule for the carillon, including who will play it and when it will be played. (Arai lives in Los Angeles.)

UW President Ana Mari Cauce, who sat with Peek during the dedication Thursday, said she was struck by the subtle beauty of “Bow Down to Washington,” the rousing fight song with the feisty lyrics that was composed in 1915.

On the carillon, “Bow Down” sounded like an entirely different composition. “I didn’t know it was quite as beautiful as it was,” she said.