Essential Vermeer 3.0
Looking for a painting by Vermeer? Find it with QUICK SEARCH!

The Automatic Chiming System

by Adelheid Rech (part three)

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.

The old clock-face of the city-hall in Delft The old clock-face of the city-hall in Delft, since 1661 in the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft. It has only the hour hand.
Nootjes (pins) pr pins of carillon chiming system
Detail of the older type of a drum in action, showing the nootjes (pins) on the strips passing the lichters (levers) which pull the wires for lifting the hammers. This drum from 1594 was made for the carillon in Schiedam. Nationaal Beiaardmuseum Asten.

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
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.

Re-pinning of a new melody on a carillon drum
Re-pinning of a new melody, Oude Kerk Amsterdam
Detail of a drum's surface with pins
Detail of a drum's surface with pins.< /div>
A scheme of an automatic chiming system
A scheme of an automatic chiming system.
Pins of an automatic chiming system of a carillon's drum
Each pin or nootje stands for a note of the melody. There are different types of nootjes for the rhythmic division of the musical measure. The illustration below shows how a pin is secured on the surface of the drum.

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.

Clik here for MP3 audio-file of:

Part of a tune for the half hour.
Carillon Saint Jans tower, Gouda, 2002/03.

(The audio file link is from the Beiaard van de St. Janstoren te Gouda website).

Click here for MP3 audio-file of:

Short part of a melody for the quarter-past stroke.
Carillon Saint Jans tower, Gouda, 2002/03.

(The audio file link is from the Beiaard van de St. Janstoren te Gouda website).

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 ensure 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.

Ttitle page of Jacob van Eyck's Der Fluyten Lust-Hof Ttitle page of Jacob van Eyck's Der Fluyten Lust-Hof, First
Part, 1646

Carillonneurs commonly played music composed for other instruments. A famous example is Jacob van Eyck's Der Fluyten Lust-Hof (1644–1649). On its title-page we read: "Dienstigh voor alle Konst-lievers tot de Fluit, Blaes- en allerley Speel-tuigh" ("Of use to all lovers of art on the recorder, wind and diverse playing-instruments"), which no doubt would have included the carillon. So we can safely assume that Van Eyck's celebrated volumes furnish an accurate picture of a carillonneur's repertoire which contained sacred music but in preponderance, popular tunes from France, Italy or England. Its title page reads: "Vol Psalmen, Paduanen, Allemanden, Couranten, Balletten, Airs, &cc. ..."7

Page from Den boeck van den voorslach van Ghendt by Philippus Wyckaer
Page from Den boeck van den voorslach van Ghendt by Philippus Wyckaert, 1681. Ghent, Municipal archives.

The first direct musical sources are two Flemish versteekboekjes or "re-pinning books" for carillons with automatic chiming systems. To set the tunes properly, music had to be written down in order to avoid any mistakes and make use of the space on the drum most efficiently. The first re-pinning books came from Théodore de Sany (1599–1658), the municipal carillonneur of Brussels. De Sany had collected 60 pieces of music, written for the automatic chiming system of the Saint Nicolas Church and dedicated the book in 1648 to the Brussels authorities in an effort to ingratiate their favor.8 The book contains religious music for important liturgical feasts of the Church year: Advent, Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide etc., but also arrangements of French chansons, Flemish May-tunes or Italian madrigals. The quality of Sany's arrangements is somewhat lacking in originality.

The other re-pinning book was compiled by the Dominican friar Philippus Wyckaert (1620–1694) for the carillon in the belfry of Ghent. It was entitled Den Boek van den voorslach van Ghendt ("Book of the chime of Ghent") and dedicated in 1681 to the city magistrate. It contains 83 pieces mostly of religious music whose melodies, however, were less related to official church music than to the common people's taste. Secular tunes are also to be found, like melodies for processions and cavalcades, drinking songs, the inevitable dances and even a number of the new opera melodies, a fine selection from the musical panorama of the time. Wyckaert made it clear that the municipal carillonneur should re-pin music that the population knew and enjoyed.

Wyckaert was able to profit from the technical improvements made to the Ghent drum by Juriaan Sprakel in 1663. Following the initial unison melodies, he increasingly progressed towards more complicated musical arrangements.

We can assume with certainty that the same or a very similar kind of music played by the automatic chime had also been performed by the carillonneurs.

The Eighteenth Century: the Golden Age of Carillonneurs

Statue of Matthias van den Gheyn in a niche of the city hall in Leuven
Statue of Matthias van den Gheyn in a niche of the city hall in Leuven. The figure is said to "look" directly at "his" Saint Pieterskerk.

The eighteenth century was the zenith for carillonneurs in the Low Countries. Since many carillonneurs served as municipal organists as well, they fulfilled an important public function and were highly regarded. Some were sought out as technical advisors for the two instruments. The great interest in the function of a carillonneur/organist was testified by a comparatively hefty number of replies to advertisements for vacant posts which made competitive examinations necessary.

Carillon concerts must have been much more frequent than they are today. Three to four concerts a week were common, apart from music played during municipal processions, celebrations, public and private festivities and, of course, during market days. In addition, the municipal carillonneur provided new music for the drum every two or three months. The choice of music was generally left to his discretion but it was assumed that he would choose psalms and music which were proper for the time of the (Church) year.

The most prominent carillonneur of that time was undoubtedly Matthias van den Gheyn (1721–1785) from the celebrated Flemish family of bell founders, carillon builders and carillonneurs. Van den Gheyn was the brother of the excellent bell founder Andreas Jozef van den Gheyn. From 1741 onwards he was organist at Sint-Pieterskerk in Leuven and from 1745 the town's municipal carillonneur. Van den Gheyn was committed to his position in society and used to celebrate his performances, where he excelled especially in improvising. André Lehr, (The Art of Carillon, p.196) wrote:

"Contemporaries relate how Van den Gheyn, in an immaculate, fashionable black suit, stylishly holding his walking stick and affably greeting friends and admirers, scanned the market to see if there were perhaps strangers who had come to listen to his renowned carillon playing. After twenty minutes he disappeared into the tower of St Peter's where he discarded the fashionable clothing and thereupon opened his concert with a number of preludes. That was only the introduction however, as time and again, the highpoint was in the form of his very original improvisations which could last for half an hour. Van den Gheyn knew very well that this unrestricted playing was of an exceptional character, as afterward he appeared once more among his admirers to accept their compliments, dressed in just as immaculate a suit as before the concert."

Title-page of Joannes de Gruytter's carillon-book
Title-page of Joannes de Gruytter's carillon-book
Antwerp 1746.
Portrait of Frederik Johan Berghuys
Portrait of Frederik Johan Berghuys
Anonymous artist
Delft, Diaconie der Nederlands
Hervormde Gemeente.

Van den Gheyn was widely regarded as the most gifted carillonneur of his time, and was likewise an expert restorer of organs and carillons. Furthermore, his outstanding qualities as a composer were evident in a number of compositions for harpsichord, organ and carillon which were discovered in manuscript in about 1861 by Xavier van Elewyck. The eleven virtuoso preludes for carillon were long thought as the earliest surviving genuine compositions for this instrument (see note 14). At the least, they represent a cautious first step towards more original compositions for the carillon. Due to their strict structure and toccata-like character, Van den Gheyn was called the "Bach of the Carillon." Until this day his preludes belong to the standard repertoire of every good carillonneur. Another carillon manuscript, the Leuvens Beiaardhandschrift ("Louvains carillon manuscript") from 1756, was probably supervised by Van den Gheyn. It contains 151 pieces of dance music, marches and music for formal occasions.

Another famous carillonneur of that time was Joannes de Gruytters (1709–1772), town carillonneur of Antwerp. The title-page of his manuscript gives detailed information about the content: Andanten, marchen, gavotten, ariaen, giuen, corenten, contre-dansen, allegros, preludes, menuetten, trion &.&. Voor den beijaert ofte klok-spil bij een vergaedert ende op gestelt door mij Ioannes de Gruijters, beijaert ofte klok-spilder des stadt ende chatedraele tot Antwerpen 1746 ("Andantes, marches, gavottes, arias, gigues, courantes country dances, allegros, preludes, minuets, trios &.&. For the carillon or bell-chime collected and put together by Joannes de Gruijtters, carillonneur or bell-ringer of the town and cathedral of Antwerp 1746").9

It is a volume of 194 pieces, principally arrangements of compositions by Lully, Corelli, Couperin, Vivaldi, Handel and Locatelli, but also from local composers such as Willem De Fesch (1687–1757) or Joseph-Hector Fiocco (1703–1741), only four pieces were expressly composed for the carillon by de Gruytter, Jan Jozef Colfs and Boudewijn Schepers. This book is another example of the preference for the French and Italian music in that time – "the nicest in the art of music" like Peter Hemony resp. Dirck Scholl had emphasized in a dispute almost a century earlier.10

The oldest preserved Dutch carillon music came from the well-known carillonneurs of Delft, Johannes Berghuys (1724–1801) and his son Frederik Johan (1762–1835).11Both were accomplished carillonneurs and organists. Father Johannes, for instance, received visits from the renowned colleagues Joachim Hess from Gouda and Jacob Potholt from Amsterdam who came expressly to Delft to listen to his carillon performance. Furthermore, he served as advisor for the carillons and organs in Brielle, Schiedam, Gouda or Tours. After his death, his son Frederik Johannes succeeded him in the post of the municipal carillonneur and organist. Several contemporaries paid their respects to his virtuoso playing. He was a master in the re-pinning of melodies for the automatic chiming. He wrote down much of the carillon music like his father had done already. A number of these books with "muziek voor het carillon in de toren van de Nieuwe Kerk" (1776–1835) are preserved and housed in the Regionaal Historisch Centrum Delft. Frederik Johan was also involved as an advisor in the sale of some of Delft's last swinging bells in 1808.


  1. André Lehr, The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries, Tielt: Lannoo Printers & Publishers 1991, 82.
  2. André Lehr, The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries, Tielt: Lannoo Printers & Publishers 1991, 110.
  3. André Lehr, The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries, Tielt: Lannoo Printers & Publishers 1991, 110.
  4. The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America (GCNA) [http://www.gcna.org/music.html]
  5. Pieter Hemony/Dirck Scholl, De on-noodsakelijkheid en ondienstigheid van cis en dis in de bassen der klokken. Delft 1678.
  6. André Lehr, The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries, Tielt: Lannoo Printers & Publishers 1991, 163.
  7. The latest research to the question whether Van Eyck had written some pieces (psalms in particular) from his Fluyten Lust-Hof at first for the carillon has recently been made by Van Eyck expert Thimo Wind in his thesis of May 2006. This would mean that not Matthias van den Gheyn (1725–1785) but c. one hundred years earlier Jacob van Eyck was the first who wrote music specifically for the carillon. For a detailed report about Mr. Wind's research and his thesis see Foecke de Wolf and Henk Veldman, "Der Klocken Lust-Hof?" in: Klok & Klepel 98, March 2007. Ed. Nederlandse Klokkenspel-Vereniging. [http://www.klokkenspel.org/] (Dutch only). An English translation of the thesis is in preparation.
  8. André Lehr, The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries, Tielt: Lannoo Printers & Publishers 1991, 164.
  9. André Lehr, The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries, Tielt: Lannoo Printers & Publishers 1991, 198
  10. André Lehr, The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries, Tielt: Lannoo Printers & Publishers 1991, 162.
  11. Information to Johannes and Frederik Johan Berghuys from: Laura Johanna Meilink-Hoedemaker, "Luidklokken, Klokkenspel en Klokkenisten," in: De Stad Delft: cultuur en maatschappij van 1667 tot 1813, ed. Ineke V. T. Spaander, Delft: Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof 1981, 167–168.

EV 3.0 Newsletter ✉

Latest Article