Everybody who would like to enjoy a little concert atmosphere again in this culture-free times without being constantly harassed with a corona test or even a vaccination or those who are afraid of an infection, should enjoy the carillon sounds. These „musical bells“ can also be heard from the distance and the carillonneur sits alone high up in his tower room (in some cases the carillon sound is, unfortunately, only produced by a mechanic “card strip” or even created by computer-controlled bell instruments).

A list of all carillons in Germany can be found at: https://glockenspieler.de/carillons-in-deutschland.

However, a carilloneur / carillonneuse (female players are still a minority) must not suffer from claustrophobia or fear of heights, because you always have to go up steep stairs high up into a church or bell tower. At this isolated height, the player sets a wooden keyboard in motion, pounds it with hands and feet, sometimes gently, sometimes wildly, in order to make various large and small bells ring and sing.

Playing a Carillon, can easily exhaust yourself. A single hit with the fist or a kick on the pedal may bring a bell of up to 20 tons in motion. Currently you may locate nearly 600 instruments worldwide. In Germany there are about 50 carillons, of which the largest in Europe is located in Halle/ Saale with 76 bells. In Flanders and the Netherlands at least 60 Carillons are currently playable.

They all work according to 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; theer are two rows of key buttons with halftones and fulltones plus pedal bar. Some Carillons cover up to five octaves. A piano? Not really, 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. These 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 automaticly and sound 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 hammering on the keys/ clappers. The mid-fifty year old musician works as a carillonneur and organist for almost 20 years. He plays regularly at noon in the Oude Kerk in Scheveningen and the Grote Kerk in The Hague – each for one hour  and of course gratis. Partially, the sounds of the carillons are heard for miles. The inhabitants know the maestro well and without the typical sounds from the bell tower they would miss something. In the interest of a melodious sound, many times he writes special adaptations for this special 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.

In 2019 I had the priviledge sitting right next to Gijsbert and to follow each of his movements and it was even possible to ask for special music titles. 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. Here is a small sample (but the original sound is much better than via PC speakers): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEEIviUXa0o

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 from traditional Berlin couplets to Elton John.

My wish for the next Carillon concert, however, would be: “Phantom of the Opera” or „Toccata et Fuga“ … what a luck of being in Potsdam and Berlin pretty soon!


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