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.

Schematische tekening van het automatisch speelwerk met een trommel
Schematic drawing of the automatic playing mechanism with a drum

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.
There had also been a tradition of beieren, a Flemish word that refers to the technique of sounding the bells manually by means of ropes attached to clappers that hang on the inside of the bells. Lastly, the cymbal tradition is worth of mention, practiced primarily in cloisters, churches, and schools, since the 10th century, whereby small bells (or cymbals) were used in a musical manner. This was an individual musical instrument that had its own evolution, reaching a highpoint in the 13th and 14th centuries.


Beginletter uit een 13de eeuws manuscript
First letter from a 13th-century manuscript (King David playing a few cymbals) © Lannoo.

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.
In the course of the 16th century, baton keyboards spread throughout Flanders and The Netherlands-many cities were the proud owners of one or more carillons. The timbre of the bells in general was unfortunately not optimal: more than a century would pass before anyone could figure out how to tune bells well. Bell founding reached new heights in the 17th century with the brothers François and Pieter Hemony. The Hemonys were from Lorraine but made their way to The Netherlands around 1640. In contrast with earlier founders who tried to tune bells by chiseling away at the inside of the bell, the Hemonys put the bell on a lathe and filed the inner surface at various levels. Each overtone was tested through the sympathetic vibration of tone bars.


De gebroeders François en Pieter Hemony samen met Jacob van Eijck.
François en Pieter Hemony, along with
Jacob van Eijck. © Lannoo.

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.
The French Occupation marked the beginning of a dark age for the carillon art. Flemish bells were systematically requisitioned so that the tin could be removed from the bronze. It was used to make a total of 300 million French coins. Approximately 70% of the bell towers were completely plundered, a loss that can never be rectified. The carillon art nearly became extinct, partly because the founders no longer knew the secret of tuning bells properly. The tide began to turn toward a revival halfway through the 19th century thanks to the impetus of Mechelen municipal carillonneur Adolf Denyn (1823-1894). He was evidence of a new attitude toward the carillon. His son Jef Denyn (1862-1941) continued his work and was responsible for a number of technical improvements concerning the playability of the carillon. This new carillon system caused a controversy at the turn of the 20th century. The establishment of the Carillon School in Mechelen in 1922 with Jef Denyn as its first director insured that his art would not be forgotten.


Jef Denyn
Jef Denyn

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.

Opslagplaats te Schaarbeek, klaar voor verscheping naar Hamburg op 18 september 1943
Repository in Schaarbeek, ready for shipment to Hamburg 18 September 1943 © Ludion

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.

Beiaardschool te Mechelen, met een studiebeiaard
Carillon School in Mechelen, with a practice carillon (M.Michiels Jr., 1953) in the 'Hof van Busleyden' tower

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.

Samenspel mobiele beiaard en piano.
Ensemble performance of mobile carillon and piano


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