The oldest and still most widespread function of bells is as a signal, among others, of the time of day according to the number of strikes. It was quickly realized that it is necessary to announce the impending hour strikes by the so-called voorslag. Literally, it means "that which comes before the strike." The people were alerted of the hour strike to come. In a unique turn of technical ingenuity, the mechanism of the tower clock was coupled to the bells in the tower, and hence the automatic carillon was born.
The first automatic carillon mechanisms were developed in the first
half of the 14th century: pegs on a drum lift levers when the drum turns.
The levers are connected, via metal wires, to hammers. The hammers are
lifted and then fall back onto the bell. Melodic playing was possible
limited only by the number of bells. The first known example of such
a melody on tower bells comes from the Park Abbey in Heverlee (Louvain)
where the voorslag played the Gregorian chant "Inviolata, integra et
casta es Maria" in 1479.
The roots of the carillon are rooted in these three practices; a carillon
was created when bells were first sounded by means of a baton keyboard.
The oldest preserved clear indication of a real carillon keyboard is
found in the accounting records of the city of Oudenaarde in 1510.
Interest in the carillon in both the north and the south continued
through the last decade of the 18th century. Antwerp and Louvain were
important centers of bell founding in Flanders during the 18th century.
Antwerp founders were Melchior de Haze, Willem Witlockx, and Joris du
Mery. The vanden Gheyn family was active in Louvain.
A dark period threatened the carillon art once again in 1941. Jef Denyn died on October 2, and a month later the German Occupation demanded the seizure of bells in Belgium. This requisition affected primarily the tolling bells, while the majority of Flemish carillons fortunately were spared.
The last bell founders in Flanders were active in the 20th century: the Michiels family in Doornik (Tournai) and Sergeys in Louvain. In 1981, the age-old profession of bell founder disappeared in Flanders. In spite of this fact, Flanders is still one of the most important places for the promulgation and promotion of the carillon art. This typically Flemish art is taught at a few educational institutions.
Various events such as carillon recitals and festivals can often help the public to discover both the social and folk characteristics of the carillon and to recognize it as a real concert instrument as well.
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