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The Playing Techniques: The Hand Playing

by Adelheid Rech (part three)

Although the traditional carillon keyboard shares some similarities with other keyboard instruments, its playing technique is unique. Hand playing is done with a keyboard called baton keyboard or stokkenklavier. Similar to a piano, the carillon keyboard has short chromatic keys above the larger diatonic ones but the carillon keys are wooden levers, rounded at the playing end. These keys are depressed by the carillonneur's closed fist. In addition, one to two octaves of pedal keys (similar to the organ pedal) for the heavy bass bells are present. These are played with the feet. This causes the corresponding manual keys above to be pulled down. Each key is connected to a bell by means of a system of wires. Although the keys are played with a closed fist, the carillonneur does not "pound" or "beat" the keys. The playing action should sensitive enough to play with a minimum of effort and allow him to control dynamics and phrasing by variation of touch.

Diagram of a single breech-connection

Graphic of a single breech-connection

The older, rather simple transmission system, was the so-called broek- or breech-system. Each key is attached to a flexible steel wire that is pulled down when a key is struck. A second wire runs from the clapper to a point fixed on the wall of the bell chamber. Both wires are looped in the center. When the key is depressed it pulls the upper wire down and causes the clapper to swing towards the inner wall of the bell. On large bells, gravity is sufficient to pull the clapper back from the bell but smaller bells are normally fitted with return springs to pull it back immediately after the stroke, so that the bell can continue to ring.

A modern baton keyboard with a Flemish pedal system
A modern baton keyboard with a Flemish pedal systemThe Netherlands Carillon, George Washington Memorial Parkway
the tuimelaar- or bell-crank system In the tuimelaar- or bell-crank system each clapper is connected to the right as well as to the left side with its neighboring bell's clapper to prevent them from swinging sideways.
The measurements of the breech-system must be carefully calculated. To facilitate precise playing, the keyboard should be located close to the bells in order to keep the mechanical connections as short as possible. Each key is provided with an adjuster above the keyboard which allows the performer to neutralize the effects of expansion and contraction caused by variations in air temperature of each metal wire.
The broek-system in the Zuidertoren in Amsterdam\
The broek-system in the Zuidertoren in Amsterdam
Manual playing of the carillon
Manual playing of the carillon
Engraving of a baton keyboard, showing positions of the bells above

Joos Verschuere Reynvaan, Muzijkaal Kunst-Woordenboek Amsterdam, 1795.

The entire mechanical system was constructed by carillon makers and not by the bell founders. Their work was fundamental for a general harmonious sound of the carillon and a comfortable playing. The proper connection of clappers to the keyboard

included the correct "trimming" for a proper interplay of the system as well as the connection of the hammers to the drum for the automatic chiming. Thus, the most successful carillon makers were highly regarded for their expertise in this field. The most famous carillon makers in the seventeenth century were Juriaan Sprakel in Zutphen (he fit the Hemony carillon in the Dom tower in Utrecht, 1664) and his cousin Willem as well as Jan van Call in Nijmegen, who erected the automatic chiming system in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft. Naturally, the great master of all things relating to the carillon was Jacob van Eyck, who inspected and fitted several carillons. Van Eyck required the help of colleagues and craftsmen due to his blindness.

Bessl system of carillon

Click here to listen to Demonstration of virtuoso hand-playing:

Jo Haazen, Director of the Koninklijke Beiaardschool "Jef Denyn" and stadsbeiaardier of Mechelen, plays the new carillon in the Saint Rombouts tower.

To the left is a scheme of a bell connected with a bell-crank or tumbler (right side). The downward movement of the key (below) is transferred into a lateral one by the tumbler at right angles to each other. The clapper is pulled to the sound bow, thereby striking the bell. The return spring (left side) pulls back the clapper to its original position immediately after the stroke.

Obviously, early seventeenth-century carillons were difficult to play, and they demanded considerable strength. To some degree, the sheer physical effort necessary prevented the carillonneur from fully concentrating on the dynamics and subtleties of his performance. Complaints about heavy keyboard action were documented in reports about newly installed carillons. This spurred improvements mainly in trimming of the system.

Jef Denyn

However, it took more than two hundred years, after a period of a gradual decline of the carillon art and the loss of bell tuning skills, before the most significant improvements in playing could be developed. Joseph Guillaume François (Jef) Denyn (1862–1941), from 1887 municipal carillonneur at Saint Rombouts in Mechelen, realized that it was first necessary to improve the instrument itself, making the interaction between the keyboard and the bells quicker and more sensitive. This required considerable changes in the mechanical system in which the use of so-called "tuimels" or "tumblers" were of great importance.

Another improvement was the introduction of return springs for the clappers, typically in the form of coiled leaf springs. The springs force the clapper to release the bell immediately after the stroke which enables the bell to ring out.

Apart from a more sensitive playing action, return springs permit a single note to be repeated in rapid succession, producing the tremolando, a technique which is useful for prolonging the shorter frequencies of the small "treble" bells in an artistic manner. The tremolando was perhaps the most typical element of Jef Denyn's newly developed "Flemish style" with its strong contrasts, virtuoso passages and free but perfectly controlled rhythms: a new "romanticism" in the art of carillon-playing hitherto unknown.

Different opinions about the styles: the "Broekse en Tuimelaarse Twisten" (breech and bell-crank disputes)

Not all were enthusiastic about the new Flemish style. Serious discussions arose concerning technical and stylistic questions in regards to requests from some Dutch associations and municipalities (e.g. Arnhem, Utrecht) to Jef Denyn for his advice on adapting their carillons from the old "broek,"- or breech system, to the new "tuimelaar," or bell-crank system. Apart from the different mechanical systems, there were two kinds of pedal systems as well. The Flemish pedal was placed in front of the player. This made a forceful but controlled playing possible. In the Dutch pedal system, the pedals hinge underneath the player's bench, like a traditional organ pedal system making them slow and laborious to play. But despite the disadvantages of the old Dutch system, defenders of traditional playing technique, devoid of the novel flourishes, continued to exist. The most prominent upholder of the conventional Dutch style was Jacob Vincent (1868–1953), from 1900 to 1952 carillonneur at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam. Through his entire life he embraced the traditional style with remarkable success, particularly in his evening concerts which he begun in 1909 (shortly after the birth of the Princess, later Queen Juliana).

Tumblers in a tuimelaar-systemTumblers in a tuimelaar-system
Detail of a tuimelaar-systemDetail of a tuimelaar-system
Treble bells from the carillon in the belfry in GhentTreble bells from the carillon in the belfry in Ghent

The leaf springs connected with the clappers are clearly visible. The hammers are used by the automatic chiming system.
Practice keyboard, made by Boudewijn Schepers
Practice keyboard, made by Boudewijn Schepers, carillonneur in Aalst (Flanders), late 18th century. The instrument shows the typical Flemish pedal system, which is still being in use today at modern keyboards. Nationaal Beiaardmuseum Asten.
arillon keyboard from the Royal Palace Amsterdam
Carillon keyboard from the Royal Palace Amsterdam, 19th century, fitted with the Dutch pedal system. Jacob Vincent celebrated his triumphs on this instrument. Nationaal Beiaardmuseum Asten.

The two different systems and styles suggest a contrasting orientation between two cultures: the sober, somewhat stiff Calvinist North against the more expressive, playful Catholic South. And the two most famous carillonneurs at this time, the archetypal Dutchman Jacob Vincent and the Fleming Jef Denyn, were the authentic representatives of each side of the dispute. It is known that they were never able to got on with each other.

Although all the necessary ingredients for a playable and fine-sounding carillon were available, the Utrecht municipality was unwilling to accept Denyn's advice for installing a bell-crank system in the Dom tower. The animated discussions about techniques, styles and traditions that ensued were ironically called the "broekse en tuimelaarse twisten" ("breech and bell-crank disputes," quoting a civil war from the late 14th /fifteenth century, called the Hoekse en Kabeljauwse twisten).1 The dispute continued for years, but with the gradual passage from the old broek-system to the modern tuimelaar-system in most of the Dutch carillon towers, it slowly faded away.

A comparison of the styles by two audio examples.

Jacob Vincent and Jef DenynJacob Vincent and Jef Denyn 1915, who, although stand closely together in this photograph, were strong rivals in their art.

Thanks to valuable historic recordings which have survived of both the Fleming Jef Denyn and his Dutch "opponent" Jacob Vincent, we have the opportunity to get a unique acoustic impression of the old carillon at Saint Rombouts in Mechelen as well as the carillon in the cupola of the Royal Palace in Amsterdam before its restoration. And at the same time, we acquaint ourselves with the prominent styles of carillon-playing in the early twentieth century: the straightforward, conventional "Dutch style" which nonetheless has its legitimacy when playing traditional carillon music (e.g. the countless variations of folk songs, psalm settings or all the preludes, airs and dances from the seventeenth and eighteenth century), and the flamboyant "Flemish style" suitable for the romantic music from the nineteenth/early twentieth century or the new pieces expressly written for the carillon which call for a maximum of expression.


  1. See also André Lehr, The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries, Tielt: Lannoo Printers & Publishers, 1991, 242 note 248.

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