The World Carillon Federation (WCF) – what does not all exist – requires a carillon to have at least 23 bells (chromatically over two octaves) and that the bells can be struck directly from a keyboard setting via cables/ ropes.

Some of us even call it the craziest instrument of the “Sch’tis”. In the successful French comedy the seldom instrument plays an important role. It is said that even US millionaire Rockefeller was inspired by its sound.

Today I would like to introduce a top protagonist of Carillon playing:  Mijn Heer Gijsbert Kok. Right, as the name implies, he is Dutch. The Netherlands as well as Belgium are strongholds of this art of bell-music.

However, you should not be afraid of claustrophobia and heights as it always goes high up in a church or bell tower on steep stairs. At lonely height, the maestro activates a wooden keyboard by hammering on the clappers with his hands and feet – sometimes gently, sometimes violently – to bring the various bells in the loft above him to swing and ring. Certainly also a possibility to serenade his loved ones.

Who plays Carillon, can easily exhaust himself. A single blow with the back of the hand or kick on the pedal may bring a bell of up to 20 tons in motion. This is the weight of the Carillon’s deepest bell in Riverside Church, New York (the different bell weights need to be of course considered when playing). According to the WCF, it is the heaviest of around 600 instruments worldwide. In Germany there are about 40 carillons, of which the largest in Europe is located in Halle an der Saale with 76 bells. In Flanders at least 60 Carillons are currently playable.

They all work according the simple cable pull principle. The player uses the keystroke to move a wire that leads directly to the clapper of the bell. Clever, because in contrast to the ringing by hand, the clapper is attached very close to the inner wall of the bell. This saves energy and makes it possible to play complete melodies.

The rest is not new. Two rows of keyboard with halftones and fulltones plus pedal bar. Some Carillons cover up to five octaves.

A piano? Not quite, because just power is not enough. The attentive listener quickly notices the peculiarities of the bells; once exalted, mighty and cumbersome once bell-clear bright. The bronze giants echo and not everyone manages to create an individual sound experience. If you listen closely, you learn to distinguish if the carillon is played by hand or automatic and therefore more monotonous by a card strip/ ticker tape.

The Hunchback of The Hague. Gijsbert Kok is one who can dominate this bulky instrument and likes nothing more than whirling about the keys/ clappers. The mid-fifty year old musician has been a carillonneur and organist for almost 20 years. Most recently, he returned from a 3-week concert tour from the USA. He plays regularly at noon in the Oude Kerk in Scheveningen and the Grote Kerk in The Hague each for one hour (gratis). Partially, the sounds of the carillons are heard for miles. The inhabitants know their maestro well and without the typical sounds they would miss something. In the interest of a melodious sound, many times he writes special adaptations for the bell-instrument.

Who would have thought of such a development in the Middle Ages? In the 7th century it started with four bells in France. They announced the following hour strike with a little tune. A brilliant idea not to miss the first stroke without a wristwatch. In the 14th century, the mechanical bell-sound was invented by a music role with pins. 1510 the first Carillon was installed in Oudenaarde, Flanders, and since the 17th nothing stood in the way of its triumphal march in the Netherlands and Flanders. Many churches and town halls were equipped with carillons and the Carillonneure played their own compositions, one of them Matthias van den Gheyn (1721-1785) or adapted contemporary piano pieces.

But the thing has a catch: Listening to a carillon concerts works best outdoors, which is not always comfortable and comparable to a warm concert hall.

Sitting right next to him we are lucky to follow each of his movements and it’s even possible to express music wishes. With excerpts from “Countess Mariza”, a Mozart sonata, a classical piece of Beethoven, a Russian waltz, and two Berlin chansons, etc., time flies by.

The Grote Kerk in The Hague has 51 bells, here we find only 38, but they still deliver a proverbial full sound. The door between the piano-room and the above installed bells always need to be closed, otherwise the noise would be deafening. Of course at the very end it was my turn to also try bangging the clappers. Just a light touch with the fist and the right food and everybody can hear my “pling-plong”.

How to achieve this perfection is hard to say due to lack of secluded training opportunities, because the public is always present/ listening. The best condition is perfect organ playing. The Dutch Carillon School is located in Amersfort, where also Gijsbert graduated.

Although he grew up among cows, he was only interested in his mother’s piano. Consequently after school he transferred to the conservatorium and since eight years he holds the honorable position of the City Carillonneur.

Here is a small sample (but the original sound is much better than via PC speakers):

At the end of the concert at 12.00 hours there is still time for a get-together in a cozy cafe. Our guest pays attention to his slim figure, but then he finally takes a piece of coconut cake – which makes him even more sympathetic. We talk about this and that, amongst them also the future of young Carillonneurs. He does not like to let negative thoughts come to him, he loves his profession too much and wants to have a free mind for his art..

It may be a coincidence, but according to ship’s captain Folkert-Jan S. (Friesland)

and adventure traveler Alex M. (Brabant)

Gijsbert Kok (South-Holland) is another “special dutchman” whose acquaintance enriches everyone. Here is a link for more information about his concert events and personal contact:

By the way, in Berlin, Jeffrey Bossin is also playing three carillons at its best. His repertoire ranges also from Classic to The Beatles and traditional Berlin couplets to Elton John.

My wish for the next Carillon concert would be: “Phantom of the Opera”!


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