The Automatic Chiming System
It should always be kept in mind that the principal task of the carillon had once been the marking of the hours of the day (and later the quarters of the hour) with melodies, the so-called voorslag. The voorslag called the attention of the busy townsfolk to the clock strokes which followed. In earlier times this was accomplished with one or more automatically chimed bell(s) as it is still done in countries without a significant carillon tradition. Thus, the voorslag can be seen as the origin of the later full developed carillon in the Low Countries.
Automatic time-measuring systems have a long history dating back to the Greek-Roman and the Arabian cultures who had fabricated imposing astronomical monumental clocks. These ancient "water clocks" were driven by running water. However, hydraulic power was hardly practical for the Northern Europe since flowing water generally froze during the long gelid winter. So at the end of the thirteenth century running water was replaced by a weight and regularly running water as a base of time by the so-called balance or foliot. This new clock, which was probably invented in Englans,1 was more compact, easier to build and more precise than the water clock. However, the introduction of the pendulum by Christiaan Huygens in 1657 brought a sweeping improvement in the accuracy of a clock. A single hand would suffice until the end of the nineteenth century but following technical refinements, the minute hand was added.
The speeltrommel in the belfry of Ghent, cast 1659
by Pieter Hemony. The nootjes on the drum and
the wires for lifting the hammers are visible. C lick here to view a demonstration of a speeltrommel
in action. Saint Jans tower in Gouda. The drum was
made in 1691 by Frederik van den Berk.
Video clip from: Beiaard van de St.Janstoren te Goudahttp
In the Netherlands, carillons were connected to tower clocks in order to play a melody every quarter of the hour utilizing an automatic chiming system. Such systems can be traced back to the early Middle Ages and can be considered precursors of the popular music boxes that produce sounds by the use of a set of pins placed on a revolving cylinder or disc. By turning the drum at an even tempo the melody will be heard. The cylinders were normally made of metal and powered by a spring. In some of the costlier models, the cylinders, which constitute a sort of musical program, could be removed are replaced with another for a new melody. The automatic chiming mechanism with bells used hammers to strike the bell on the outside. The large drum, the speeltrommel, initially of two forged-iron wheels with strips for the removable note-pins which was connected with the tower clock. Later, the cylinders were made of brass and cast in a single piece.
When the drum-weight (see the black and white schematic drawing to the right) is released by the tower clock (usually every quarter of the hour) it begins to rotate to the right. As soon as one of the pins (nootjes) is pulled through under the lever (the lichter, at the left) the vertical wire is pulled down lifting the hammer. The hammer falls back exactly on the sound bow of the bell as soon as the pin has passed whereby the lever returns into its original position. Like with the clapper, a return spring under the hammer pulls it back after the stroke to enable the bell to ring out.
Detail of a drum's surface with pins.
It is the task of the carillonneur (frequently with the help of a clock maker) to set the pins on the drum, called versteken, according to the musical pattern of the melody. Furthermore, melodies can be changed by re-setting the pins whenever desired although its laborious, time-consuming work that calls for great attention. Two days are necessary for re-pinning the four different melodies for each quarter of the hour. Today the re-pinning is done up to three or even four times a year.
In order to distinguish the different parts of an hour by ear (when it is not possible to see the tower clock, at night for instance), the melodies have different lengths. While only a part of a melody sounds for the quarters, about one half of a tune is played for the half hour, and a complete tune for the full hour.
This Youtube video shows the automated drum performing the voorschlag, then the hour chime, Saint Rumbold's in Mechelen.
The Development of the Carillon to a Full Musical Instrument / The Daily Musical Practice
Unfortunately, no direct sources exist that might document the music played in the early times of the carillon (early sixteenth century), so that we can make only general deductions based on indirect sources. It is very likely that the melodies played by the automatic chime were principally of religious origin, like well-known church hymns and psalm settings. Besides, the authorities responsible for the carillons had to bear in mind the limited possibilities of the early mechanical systems and the range of the bells which, moreover, were not always perfectly tuned. Therefore, they preferred music with simple melodic lines with uncomplicated harmonies that could sidestep these limitations. Still, the bell founders and clock makers made every effort to improve the mechanical systems (both for the automatic chiming and the hand playing) as well as to improve the casting and tuning techniques, although the latter not always with significant success.
In general, those who commissioned a carillon, in most cases the municipalities, also chose which kind of music to be played. After the reformation had swept over the Northern Netherlands, we know that the synod at Edam in 1586 complained about "the playing of inconsiderate and secular songs on bells and organs" and that they demanded that the local secular authorities to insure this would not happen again.2 Similar orders were issued to municipal carillonneurs of other cities (Antwerp 1580/81) to avoid "improper or offensive ballads, melodies or poems" and to confine themselves on "certain psalms, sacred or edifying melodies and hymns of praise."3
However, the initial restrictions quickly ebbed because carillons where principally intended for the "honor and decoration" of the towns, as well as to communicate civic pride and prosperity to out-of-towners. In essence, carillon music was first and foremost for the enjoyment of the public listeners. In several towns local authorities and carillonneurs agreed to play psalms and hymns during the Sunday recitals while on weekdays whatever the carillonneurs wished. Most likely they chose popular melodies and dance music. As was usual in those times (and still is today), carillonneurs derived the basics of the melodies from music books adjusting the harmonies and rhythm while improvising in a clear, uncomplicated manner.
"Like piano music, carillon music is written on two staves: music on the treble or upper staff is played with the hands, while that on the bass or bottom staff is played with the feet. Care must be taken when composing or transcribing music for the carillon. One feature that sets the carillon off from other instruments is the fact that once a bell is struck, it continues to ring until the vibrations die out naturally. All of the musical expression of which the carillon is capable is controlled by how the performer strikes the bell. There is no way to stop or alter the sound of a struck bell. Dampers are ineffective because they just deaden the sound without stopping it, making it unmusical. Lastly, the ample tonal structure of a bell means that sounding a large number of bells together is unnecessary. A rich sound can be obtained from just a few bells." 4
What Kind of Music was Played in Vermeer's Time?
In the second half of the seventeenth century, the new, well-tuned chromatic carillons of the Hemony brothers, with their increasing range in size, marked a decisive step in the development of the carillon into a full-fledged musical instrument. Unfortunately, most of the music of past players has disappeared and for various reasons none was ever published. Private collections were lost or destroyed over the years so surviving examples are exceedingly rare. Indirect evidence of the choice of music may be suggested by a report of the Delft organist and carillonneur Dirck Scholl (1641-1727) during the famous dispute with Quirinus van Blankenburg (1654-1740) from Gouda. This report addresses the question of whether the Cis and Dis are necessary in the bass bells of a carillon.5 Scholl pointed to the fact that the bass notes do not occur in French or Italian compositions. Evidently, foreign music had found its way into the carillon repertoire in parallel to the keen interest in the French and Italian culture that the Dutch middle and upper classes had developed. In the program of one of the first carillon concerts in Alkmaar in 1687, we encounter titles like Bellinde, Petit Bergère or Ballet van Alcmaar6, undoubtedly of French origin.