Carillon History

(part one)

View of Delft, Johannes VermeerIn Holland the time sings

(19th-century Italian saying)

Very few observers note that the sunlit spire of the Nieuwe Kerk in Vermeer’s View of Delft is depicted without a single bell. It is very probable that Vermeer painted depicted this passage shortly before the first twenty bells of the new carillon were hung on 4th May, 1660 after the old bells had been taken down.1 But Vermeer must have had a deeper relationship with the art of the carillon long before and long after he completed the painting.

As for each of the circa 20,000 inhabitants of Delft, carillon music must have accompanied every event of Vermeer's life. It must have also provided an melodic background for his daily painting sessions. In fact, Vermeer lived his entire life in the midst of bells. His youth was passed a stone’s throw away from towering Nieuwe Kerk, first in Voldersgracht, then in his father’s tavern "Mechelen" on the Grote Markt. From about 1660 on, he lived with his ever-expanding family in the house of his mother-in-law Maria Thins at Oude Langendijk, just across from Mechelen. For the painter, it would have been impossible to escape the imposing sounds from the bells of the Delft city hall, those of the Nieuwe Kerk or of the Oude Kerk which had the Netherlands' largest bell, the "Trinitas"- or Bourdon-bell, 1570 cast by Hendrik van Trier.2

In precisely the years of Vermeer’s artistic activity, bell-founding and carillon-mounting had reached the peak of a first flourishing in the Netherlands thanks to the unsurpassed craftsmanship of the brothers François and Pieter Hemony born of a noted family of bell founders in Lorraine. The carillon spread throughout the Low Countries stimulated by important technological developments in clock-making, general mechanics and metal working. Since the art of the carillon remains one of the most important facets of the Netherlands's cultural heritage and since it is the largest, heaviest and perhaps most complicated of all musical instruments, it is worth a closer look at its history and amazing technical complexity. Then, returning to Delft, we will get acquainted with the "'Saint Ursula-beiaard" of the Nieuwe Kerk, Vermeer's daily musical escort.

.by Adelheid Rech.

In memory of
Dr. André Lehr,
who died on 27th March, 2007

Classification: The Bell

According to the Hornbostel-Sachs-system a bell (the principal part of a carillon) is an idiophone which creates sound primarily by vibrating itself when struck with a "tongue," known as the "clapper," suspended within the bell or with a separate mallet or hammer struck by the performer outside of the bell. Furthermore, the bell is classified as a percussion vessel. Certain types (e.g. pellet bells), however, are vessel rattles.

The Carillon

Dutch/Flemish: klokkenspel, beiaard
French: carillon
German: Glockenspiel
Italian: cariglione

Since each separate note is produced by an individual bell, a carillon's musical range is determined by the number of bells it has. Different names are assigned to instruments based on the number of bells they comprise. According to the definition of the World Carillon Federation, a carillon must possess at least 23 bronze bells, which, apart from the lowest three bells, must form a fully chromatic scale. Modern carillons encompass at least four chromatic octaves.

The Origins of Bells

Bells are among the oldest musical instruments of the world even though they were not primarily used for music making. They are typically made of metal (most often bronze, an alloy of c. 20-22% tin and c. 78-80 % copper) even though we have evidence about bells made of stone, wood, hard fruit skins (e.g. coconuts) or special kinds of shells, often with teeth serving as clappers which date from the pre-historical times. Today, bells can be made of porcelain3 or even glass. Bells can be of all sizes: from tiny dress accessories to large church bells which weigh thousands of kilograms.

The earliest known bronze bells were found in China, dating from the Shang-dynasty (c. 1520-c.1030 BC). They appeared mainly in two different types: with clappers, like the little ling, and without clappers, like the larger zhong from the Zhou-dynasty (eleventh-3rd centuries BC) that at times reached the length of one meter. They were struck with a separate beater and were normally constructed in tuned sets (bianzhong) mainly for ritual performances.

Early bells were used to protect animals against evil forces and to hold a flock together by its distinctive sound. They were also fastened onto clothing to impress both gods and men. Little golden bells were attached on the high priest's robe to chase away evil spirits. It is written about Confucius (551-479 BC) that the heavens will use this great teacher as a "handbell with a golden tongue."4 This same metaphor, with the bell as the preacher and the clapper as the tongue, was later also used in the Christian culture.

The oldest sources concerning the use of bells in Christian culture trace back at first to Egypt. With the Edict of Milan in 313 by Constantine the Great, Christians gained extensive religious freedom which enabled them to practice their faith with all its liturgical orders in a more open manner. Some of the oldest bells known from early Christian culture appear to come from Byzantine cloisters in the area of Damascus. This is also an indication that bells had been used in those times primarily in cloisters where they were cast by the monks themselves, mostly in the size of handbells. They were used to announce the canonical hours, calling the monks to the regular prayers. Hence the Latin name for the bell as signum – the signal.

The great significance attributed to the bell as a sacred implement is confirmed by the symbolism woven around it during the Middle Ages. With its hard, long-lasting material and its far-reaching sound the bell came to symbolize the voice of the preachers of the New Testament: the voice will be heard until the end of time and in all corners of the earth. Another example is the bell‘s consecration when it was first cleansed of wicked spirits, and afterwards consecrated to the new service of preaching. In this ritual, the bell received a name usually relating to its function, like "Apostolica" for the Apostles' feasts, or "Dominica" for the normal use on Sundays. This ritual is still in use in our days (with slight differences between the Catholic and the Protestant Church).

With the spread of Christianity in Europe and the construction of large churches with towers, originally part of a structure of their defense, the bell’s dimension grew, the volume of its sound and its decay increased, the latter of which became a characteristic feature of the sound of Western church bell ever since, (at th e same time their rhythmic and melodic use were limited). These bells were housed in the upper part of the church towers and were sounded, like the earlier handbells, by swinging with a rope. In contrast with other kinds of bells, carillon bells are not swung but are fixed to a metal frame. While the bells themselves do not move, the clappers strike the inside lip of the bells to produce a sound.

With the continual growth of the cities during the Middle Ages, these bells—apart from their regulation of the religious life—took on other functions owing to their far reaching voice. First of all they told the hours to the citizens. Furthermore, they signaled different occasions, like closure hours of town gates, announcements from the city halls, the death of a prominent person, or, importantly for the urban life, as an alarm for fires or other dangers. A distinct, recognizable timbre for each bell was necessary to distinguish between each of these events.As it gradually became more common to ring several bells together on festive occasions, greater attention was given to improving their tones in order to produce a more harmonious sound. With the 14th and fifteenth centuries, the desire to use fragments of liturgical melodies for the tower clocks in abbeys or to suggest such fragments in the interplay of swinging peals, increased. For this reason, the pitch of the tower bells had to be carefully related and the exact tuning of the bells had to be improved. The development of clock chimes led to widespread automatic playing and to the evolution of the carillon in the early sixteenth century. The first carillon known to us dates from 1510 in Oudenaarde (Flanders). Early ancestors of a carillon we find in the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria by Alfonso the Wise from the late thirteenth century.

Chinese ling bells from the Shang-dynasty
Chinese ling bells from the Shang-dynasty
c. 1520-1030 BC
Nationaal Beiaardmuseum Asten

They were usually attached to
clothing or given as burial gifts.
A zhong bell
A zhong bell

It can produce two different pitches depending on where it is struck.5
An early Christian bronze bell
An early Christian bronze bell from a monastic church near Damascus, sixth or seventh century.
Nationaal Beiaardmuseum Asten.
Cantiga CLXXX
Cantiga CLXXX

Although the bells have their clappers they are struck with hammers. The person wearing a soft beret is probably meant to represent an intellectual
Cantiga CCCC
Cantiga CCCC

This person – a monk – is playing an automated kind of bell chime or a cymbala containing seven bells. They seem to be conveniently labeled [A, B,] C, D, E, F, G as it is noticed on the knobs.

The Carillon

While swinging bells enjoyed great popularity in England and German-speaking areas, the carillon soon occupied a prominent position in Flanders and the Netherlands although the swinging bells had been yet become the principal sound coming from the Dutch towers. Carillons became symbols of civic pride. Cities and towns competed against one another to possess the most imposing instruments and largest and best bells. Often cities were not satisfied unless they boasted several carillons, and even the smallest hamlet found a place for one. While the church or town hall tower was the most common site, carillons were sometimes located in an abbey or even a palace. A few bell towers were freestanding, called campaniles.

But with the definitive spread of the carillon in the sixteenth century, the interest in swinging bells faded in the Low Countries. The case of the Delft swinging bells may illustrate this fact. From the middle of the sixteenth century on they diminished and the last remaining ones were sold in 1808 (see part 5: The swinging bells and the "Saint Ursula-beiaard" of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft).

The emergence of military artillery at the beginning of the 14th century led to the new profession of weapon making. The original founders' bronze casting facilities were employed for both casting bells and cannons. The ironic effect of this development was that in times of war the founder's business prospered through the need for cannons while in times of peace cannons, which had been made by melting dow bells, were in turn melted down to produce bells that could celebrate the victory the cannons had made possible.

During the 14th and fifteenth century, Flemish and Dutch towns rivaled against the others in establishing the latest carillons. Most of the early carillons were cast in Mechelen (Flanders) by the famous bell founding families Waghevens and Van den Ghein. Some of theses bells still exist, either in part (seven carillon bells in Sint-Leonardus church Zoutleeuw/Flemish Brabant, 1531 by Medardus Waghevens) or as a complete carillon (in the tower of Monnickendam, near Amsterdam, late sixteenth century, by Pieter Van den Ghein, still in use).

Bell founders normally did not work in fixed establishments. They moved their activity from town to town or even from land to land casting bells near or directly at the place where they were to be hung given the difficulty of transporting larger bells and the necessity of digging holes for the casting process.6 Thus, they were known as "itinerant" founders. The opportunity to inspect older bells before casting their own was one of the benefits of the itinerant system. Moreover, the knowledge gathered through continuous contact with local traditions was of great significance for research and improvement of bell founding and, essential for carillons, tuning.

The practice of casting in situ did not entirely cease but in some cases continued into the nineteenth century. Casting ovens were even set up inside churches themselves, and records of bills submitted for repair work of the premises damaged during the casting operations still exist. Undoubtedly, the introduction of hand played music, rather than music produced by the automatic chiming system. Founders were under constant pressure to expand bell ranges. By the seventeenth century it was possible to make and tune sets up to three and one-half octaves.

The art of carillon playing originated nearly 500 years ago in the area of Europe that now comprises the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France. It is there that the greatest concentration of carillons can still be found, with close to 400 instruments in use. The intense interest for bells spawned incentive for technical progress. Bell makers sought the utmost perfection in tuning and timbre. The craft of bell making attained its highest status in the Netherlands, and the services of the Dutch founders were sought far and wide.

Drawing from 1767 showing the cast process  of carillon bells
Drawing from 1767 showing the cast process The two craftsmen are preparing the so-called false bell with the help of a stencil. from: Denis Diderot & Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Encyclopédie ou dictionnare raisonné des arts et des métiers (Paris, 1753 etc.).
One bell from the famous Zutphen carillon
One bell from the famous Zutphen carillon, the first well-tuned carillon, cast in 1644 by the Hemony brothers in collaboration with Jacob van Eyck. Nationaal Beiaardmuseum Asten.
Detail from this bell with the place of the cast
Detail from this bell with the place of the cast: "Zutphen"

The Hemony Brothers

A decisive role in the development of the carillon was played by the brothers François (c. 1609-May 1667) and Pieter Hemony (1619-17.02.1680), born in Levécourt (Lorraine), sons of the church bell founder Peter Hemony or of his brother Blaise. Initially, both worked independently until they were commissioned to cast and deliver a carillon to the town of Zutphen in 1643, which, after extensive studies. The carillon they created brought the Hemony brothers to the forefront of carillon production in the Netherlands. They settled in Zutphen until 1657. Between 1657 and 1664 François ran a workshop in Amsterdam becoming the inspector of bells and guns, while Pieter worked in Ghent. From 1664 to 1667, they worked again together in Amsterdam. After the death of François, Pieter managed the workshop alone until his death in 1680. In all, they had produced 51 carillons, of which about thirty have survived, most of them only in part.7

Through painstaking research, the Hemony brothers became expert craftsmen and accomplished metallurgists. I order to improve bell tuning they sought the assistance of musicians capable of advising them on matters of timbre and especially the inner tuning of the bells. They found the most influential bell expert they ever could wish for in Jonkheer Jacob van Eyck, the blind organist, carillonneur and recorder player, composer of the famous Der Fluyten Lust-Hof and director of the carillons in Utrecht.

After the famed French music theorist Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) had discovered the overtones of a string, it was Jacob van Eyck who first understood how to systematically analyze the overtones of a bell. (For details about a bell's pitches and overtones see below "The shape and acoustics of a bell"). Van Eyck demonstrated his method with a wine glass by whistling at the pitch of the fundamental or one of the overtones of the glass, which, in the case the whistled note was conform with one of those tones, began to resonate at that tone, thereby producing a sound. Constantijn Huygens, a distant cousin of Van Eyck, wrote about this experiment with great astonishment to his friend, the musician and music theorist Johan Albert Ban (1597/98-1644), and also to other learned gentlemen of that time, Mersenne, René Descartes (1596-1650) and Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637) became aware that Van Eyck was able to whistle all sorts of overtones out of a bell without even touching them. But while the scientists sought for a physical explanation of this mysterious phenomenon Van Eyck put it to use by making a practical link to the comparison of the overtones which he had been made to sound individually. He came to the conclusion that by altering the bell's profile, their tunes could be controlled. This was the first time in the history of bell founding that concrete and measurable information concerning bell notes was related to the measurements of the bell's profile.

The Hemony brothers may have come into contact with Van Eyck during their studies 1643 for the commissioned carillon in Zutphen, since Van Eyck was serving there as advisor for the municipality. Together they experimented with bell profiles and systems of tuning. Van Eyck established the best pattern of partial tones to constitute such a chord that would be heard as a unity at the moment the bell is struck. This "tone" he called slagtoon (the strike note which defines the pitch of the bell). The Hemonys appropriated Van Eyck's findings and developed from them a method of tuning. Consequentially, they cast their bells somewhat thicker than necessary. Afterwards, the bell was placed on a lathe and the correct sound was attained by removing material from the proper parts of the bell's interior surface. This method of bell-tuning has remained the most customary until the present day.

The Hemonys not only produced the purest euphonious bells of their time but were also the first to make chromatic carillons and extend their compass to more than three octaves. Thus, they developed the carillon into a complete musical instrument.

Unfortunately, after the death of the Hemony brothers (Pieter died in 1680) no one was capable of attaining the same quality in bell founding and particularly in tuning, including their pupils (except perhaps Claes Noorden and Melchior de Haze, probably a Hemony pupil). Apart from the lack in true talent for bell founding, the decline of quality may have been due to the fact that the Hemonys, like other founders, jealously kept their art of tuning in secrecy (together with the physical composition of the bronze), later even called the "bell-founders" secret." Only a few founders, like Melchior de Haze (1632-1697) from Antwerp, Andreas Frans van den Gheyn (1696-c.1730) from Leuven and Willem Witlockx (d. 1733), likewise from Antwerp, excelled in bell founding even though their tuning ability was inferior to that of the Hemonys. The death of Witlockx in 1733, certainly the most important founder of the time, marked the end of a true Golden Age of carillon history. At about the same time other founders of reputation, Alexius Jullien, Antoine Bernard and Jan Albert de Grave died as well. In the second half of the eighteenth century, only Andreas Jozef van den Gheyn, from the renowned bell founding family in Leuven, cast a number of good carillons; lighter in weight than those of the Hemonys, and higher in pitch. He was the last bell maker steeped in the art of tuning, and with his death in 1793, this art died too.

With the French Revolution and the occupation of Europe by Napoleon that followed, many carillons were requisitioned in order to obtain material for casting cannons. In addition, the carillon declined in importance with the evolution of the bourgeois musical culture, which took place mainly in concert halls and private salons. The carillon's time-keeping function had also been superseded by the perfection of indoor clocks and pocket watches. Nevertheless the carillon never entirely vanished from the daily life in Holland and Flanders, and the traditional post of the municipal carillonneur was maintained by most of the towns.

Bell tuding
The brothers François and Pieter Hemony experiment with the tuning of bells, supported by the blind Jonkheer Jacob van Eyck. Historical picture, c. 1880, in: W. Hofdijk, Lauwerbladen uit Neerlands Gloriekrans I, The Hague, z.j. p. 306.

The Art of Carillon Playing

Traditionally there carrillon performances had been somewhat informal. in fact, very often performances wer in part improvised, leading to a spontaneity that established a close rapport with the public below. Since the carillonneur performs atop a tower removed far from his public, the player must hold his listeners' attention by projecting his imaginative to obtain dramatic qualities.

At the end of the nineteenth century, two outstanding personalities made decisive contributions to the revival of the art of carillon. The first was Jef Denyn (1862-1941), the municipal carillonneur at Saint Rombouts in Mechelen since 1887. Denyn possessed a magnetic personality and was gifted with both an outstanding musical sensitivity and physical dexterity. He significantly improved the mechanics of the carillon, making it easier to play (for details see below in part 2, "The structure and technique of a carillon"). Furthermore, Denyn created a new musical style of great virtuosity and subtlety, called the "Flemish Style," which brought him enormous success during his weekly recitals. His brilliant performances inspired colleagues everywhere. In 1922, after World War I, Denyn's plans for the professional training of young carillonneurs were realized with the establishment of a "beiaardschool" in Mechelen, the first in the history of the carillon (now world-known as the Koninklijke Beiaardschool "Jef Denyn"). Denyn's fame attracted numerous foreign students to his school which became recognized as the world center of carillon art.

The second personality whose contribution was instrumental to the rebirth of the carillon was Canon Arthur B. Simpson, an English clergyman who had taken a lively interest in church bells but was dissatisfied with their state in England. In 1896, after thorough studies of English and nearby continental bells, among them several Hemony bells, he rediscovered the lost secret of tuning the five principal partials of a bell instead of only one partial as it was customary in that time. The English bell founders John Taylor & Co. and then Gillett & Johnston adopted Simpson's ideas and developed sufficient skill to tune a chromatic series of carillon bells of excellent quality.

During World War II, many carillons were again destroyed or requisitioned, but some of their bells were made available to scientific research. The results enabled the Dutch bell founders Eijsbouts in Asten and Petit & Fritsen in Aarle-Rixtel (both world-famous foundries today) to supply finely tuned carillons, or later, bells made precisely according to the "Hemony-style" to replace historic bells which had gone out of tune owing to corrosion caused by air pollution.

The lively and lasting interest in the art of carillon is manifested in various activities, such as the establishment of the "Nederlandse Beiaardschool" in Amersfoort in 1953, the extensive work of various national and regional carillon associations both in the Netherlands and in Belgium, festivals and competitions in carillon-playing like the International Queen Fabiola Competition in Mechelen, or the establishment of two carillon museums in Asten (1969) and Mechelen (1985).

The Royal Carillon School was founded in 1922 by renowned city carillonneur of Mechelen Jef Denyn, in whose honor it was later named, with the support of Americans Herbert Hoover, John D. Rockefeller, and William Gorham Rice. The first institution of its kind, the school soon gained international acclaim and has trained carillonneurs from numerous countries, including Canada, China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ghana, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

  1. Kees Kaldenbach, "The 'View of Delft' by Johannes Vermeer, a Guided Art History Tour", <>.
  2. The "Trinitas" i weighs about 8.750 kg and has a diameter of about 230 cm.
  3. See for instance the carillons in the Frauenkirche (Our Lady's Church) Meissen/Germany from 1929, the first well-tuned porcelain carillon world wide, or in the so-called "Glockenspielpavillon" in the Dresden Zwinger, both made of the famous Meissen porcelain.
  4. To the research of large archeological finds of zhong-bells and their tuning see reviews by John H. Lienhard, University of Houston [] and Martin Braun, Sweden. []
    To the history and art of ancient Chinese bells see André Lehr, Klokken en klokkenspelen in het oude China tijdens de Shang- en de Shou-dynastie. Asten 1985.
  5. see André Lehr, The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries, Tielt 1991, p. 10.
  6. To the process of moulding and casting a bell see detailed information on the website of the world famous Dutch bell foundry "Koninklijke Eijsbouts" in Asten.
  7. Complete catalogue of all Hemony carillons in André Lehr, De klokkengieters François en Pieter Hemony, Asten, 1959.
Jef Denyn
Jef Denyn playing the carillon in the Saint Rombouts tower, Mechelen, c. 1920.