Looking for a painting by Vermeer? Find it with QUICK SEARCH!

The Playing Techniques: The Hand Playing

by Adelheid Rech (Part Three)

While the traditional carillon keyboard bears some resemblance to other keyboard instruments, its playing technique is distinctly unique. The carillon is played using a keyboard known as a baton keyboard or stokkenklavier. Similar to a piano, it features shorter chromatic keys positioned above the larger diatonic ones. However, unlike a piano, the carillon's keys are wooden levers with rounded ends for playing. These keys are pressed using the carillonneur's closed fists.

Additionally, the carillon typically includes one to two octaves of pedal keys, akin to those found on an organ, which are used to play the heavier bass bells with the feet. Engaging these pedal keys simultaneously pulls down the corresponding manual keys above. Each key is connected to a bell via a system of wires.

Despite the use of a closed fist, carillonneurs do not "pound" or "beat" the keys. Instead, the playing action is designed to be sensitive enough to require minimal effort, allowing the carillonneur to control dynamics and phrasing through variations in touch. This nuanced approach to playing is crucial for the expressiveness and musicality of carillon performance.

Diagram of a single breech-connection

Graphic of a single breech-connection

The earlier and relatively rudimentary transmission system employed in carillons was known as the "broek-" or "breech-system." In this system, each key is connected to a flexible steel wire, which is drawn downwards upon the striking of the key. Concurrently, a second wire extends from the clapper to a fixed point on the wall of the bell chamber. These two wires are interconnected at a central loop. When a key is depressed, the upper wire is pulled down, prompting the clapper to swing toward the inner wall of the bell.

In the case of larger bells, gravity alone is typically sufficient to draw the clapper away from the bell after striking. However, smaller bells are usually equipped with return springs. These springs swiftly retract the clapper following the stroke, enabling the bell to continue ringing unimpeded. This system, though basic in its design, was foundational in the development of carillon mechanics.

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 meticulously calculated. For precise playing, it is essential to position the keyboard near the bells, thereby minimizing the length of the mechanical connections. Each key is equipped with an adjuster above the keyboard. This adjuster enables the performer to counterbalance the effects of expansion and contraction in each metal wire, which result from variations in air temperature.

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

The entire mechanical system of the carillon was constructed by carillon makers, distinct from the bell founders. Their craftsmanship was crucial for achieving a harmonious overall sound in the carillon and ensuring comfortable playability. The proper connection of the clappers to the keyboard involved meticulous "trimming" to ensure the optimal functioning of the system. Additionally, this included the connection of the hammers to the drum for the automatic chiming mechanism. Consequently, the most adept carillon makers of the time were highly esteemed for their specialized expertise in this intricate field.

Among the most renowned carillon makers of the seventeenth century were Juriaan Sprakel in Zutphen, known for fitting the Hemony carillon in the Dom tower of Utrecht in 1664, and his cousin Willem, as well as Jan van Call in Nijmegen, who installed the automatic chiming system in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Delft. However, the preeminent authority in all matters related to the carillon was Jacob van Eyck (c. 1590–1657). He inspected and fitted several carillons, though his blindness necessitated the assistance of colleagues and skilled craftsmen.

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 of the diagram is a representation of a bell connected to a bell-crank or tumbler (shown on the right side). The downward motion of the key (illustrated above) is converted into a lateral movement by the tumbler, positioned at right angles. This action causes the clapper to be pulled towards the sound bow, resulting in the striking of the bell. On the left side, the return spring repositions the clapper to its original place immediately following the stroke.

It is evident that playing carillons in the early seventeenth century posed significant challenges, requiring considerable physical strength. This often hindered carillonneurs from fully focusing on the dynamics and finer nuances of their performance. Records from that era frequently mention complaints about the heavy action of the keyboard in reports on newly installed carillons. These issues eventually led to advancements, primarily in the trimming and fine-tuning of the system.

Jef Denyn in his studio.

It took over two centuries, following a gradual decline in the art of carillon and a loss of bell tuning skills, before substantial improvements in playability could be achieved. Joseph Guillaume François (Jef) Denyn (1862–1941), who became the municipal carillonneur at Saint Rombouts in Mechelen in 1887, recognized the necessity of first enhancing the instrument itself. He aimed to make the interaction between the keyboard and the bells both quicker and more responsive. This endeavor necessitated significant modifications to the mechanical system, particularly in the innovative use of "tuimels" or "tumblers."

An additional advancement involved the implementation of return springs for the clappers, usually in the form of coiled leaf springs. These springs ensure that the clapper disengages from the bell immediately after striking, allowing the bell to resonate freely.

Beyond facilitating more sensitive play, the return springs also allow for rapid repetition of a single note, creating the tremolando effect. This technique is especially useful for extending the shorter frequencies of the smaller "treble" bells in an artistically pleasing way. The tremolando became a hallmark of Denyn's revolutionary "Flemish style," characterized by its stark contrasts, virtuosic passages, and free yet impeccably controlled rhythms. This style introduced a new form of "romanticism" in carillon-playing, previously unseen in the field.

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

Jacob Vincent Jacob Vincent (December 3, 1948)

The introduction of the new Flemish style in carillon playing, spearheaded by Denyn, was not universally embraced. This led to the "Broekse en Tuimelaarse Twisten" (breech and bell-crank disputes), serious debates revolving around technical and stylistic aspects of carillon music. These discussions were particularly animated when certain Dutch associations and municipalities, such as Arnhem and Utrecht, sought Denyn's advice on transitioning their carillons from the old "broek," or breech system, to the newer "tuimelaar," or bell-crank system.

Beyond the differences in mechanical systems, there was also a divide in the type of pedal systems used. The Flemish pedal, positioned in front of the player, enabled forceful yet controlled playing. Conversely, the Dutch pedal system, with pedals hinging underneath the player's bench akin to a traditional organ, was criticized for being slow and cumbersome.

Despite the perceived disadvantages of the old Dutch system, proponents of the traditional playing technique, eschewing modern embellishments, persisted. The most notable advocate of the conventional Dutch style was Jacob Vincent (1868–1953), who served as the carillonneur at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam from 1900 to 1952. Throughout his life, Vincent steadfastly adhered to the traditional style, achieving remarkable success, particularly in his evening concerts which began in 1909, shortly after the birth of Princess Juliana, who later became Queen.

Jacob Vincent, a renowned carillonneur, was born in Amsterdam on December 4, 1868, and passed away in Utrecht on February 22, 1953. He was the son of Johan Pieter Vincent, a shopkeeper, and Antoinetta Catharina Elizabeth Bakels.

From a young age, Vincent was deeply interested in instrumental music. During his primary and grammar school years, he studied piano and organ under the tutelage of KA Willeumier, an organist from Zaandam. His father owned a shop on Herenstraat in Amsterdam, selling household goods, toys, and musical instruments. While working in his father's store, Jacob frequently found himself drawn to playing an organ kept in the storeroom, much to his father's chagrin. Eventually, his father had to concede that Jacob's true talent lay in music rather than in the family business.

Vincent achieved his greatest fame as a carillonneur, a passion kindled by his teacher Albert Pomper. Vincent took over Pomper's role at the Zuiderkerk in Amsterdam in 1898 due to Pomper's blindness and poor health. In 1900, Vincent became the carillonneur at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, initially playing patriotic songs every Monday afternoon. At that time, carillon playing was largely unappreciated, and most carillons were in disrepair. However, Vincent's performances, particularly a concert for Princess Juliana's birth in 1909, began attracting large audiences, signaling a revival of the Dutch glockenspiel tradition.

Vincent's fame grew with broadcasts of his performances, starting in 1927, to the Dutch East Indies and later on domestic radio, further popularizing the glockenspiel. He took on additional roles as carillonneur in various locations and contributed to the restoration and maintenance of several carillons. A knowledgeable figure in glockenspiel history and technology, Vincent also composed for the carillon and trained aspiring carillonneurs.

In 1915, Vincent met Jef Denyn, a prominent Belgian carillon player. Despite initial camaraderie, they soon disagreed on the carillon's construction. Denyn favored a holistic design approach and introduced return springs for more dynamic playing, which Vincent, a staunch traditionalist, did not endorse. This led to intense debates between supporters of both systems.

During World War II, Vincent's patriotic performances led to conflicts with pro-German authorities and his eventual dismissal. Despite moving and facing health challenges, he continued playing until his last concert in 1952. Vincent's legacy lived on through his musically talented children: Truus, a carillonneur and piano teacher; Piet, a carillonneur and music school director; and Jo, a renowned concert singer.

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 distinct systems and styles in carillon music reflect contrasting cultural orientations: the more reserved and somewhat rigid Calvinist North versus the expressive and playful Catholic South. The two most renowned carillonneurs of the time, the quintessential Dutchman Jacob Vincent and Jef Denyn, embodied the respective sides of this divide. Notably, they were never able to forge a harmonious relationship.

Despite having all the components for a playable and melodious carillon, the Utrecht municipality was reluctant to implement Denyn's recommendations for installing a bell-crank system in the Dom tower. This led to fervent debates over techniques, styles, and traditions, humorously referred to as the "broekse en tuimelaarse twisten" ("breech and bell-crank disputes"). This term humorously echoed a civil war from the late fourteenth/fifteenth century, known as the Hoekse en Kabeljauwse twisten. The dispute persisted for years, but as more Dutch carillon towers gradually transitioned from the old broek-system to the modern tuimelaar-system, the contention eventually subsided.See also André Lehr, The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries (Tielt: Lannoo Printers & Publishers, 1991), 242, note 248. 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.


EV 4.0 Newsletter ✉

Latest Article

If you discover a or anything else that isn't working as it should be, I'd love to hear it! Please write me at: jonathanjanson@essentialvermeer.com