Mechelen keeps centuries-old carillon tradition alive and well

Summary

Thanks to one forward-thinking carillon player and the Royal Carillon School, Mechelen continues to be the world centre of carillon culture

With congratulations from Unesco

Last month, Unesco handed over its official recognition of the Belgian contribution to the safeguarding of carillon culture in a ceremony in Brussels' town hall. By rights, the ceremony should have really taken place in Mechelen. The city was at the root of the carillon revival in the 19th century, while the Royal Carillon School Jef Denyn is still the world centre of carillon. Flanders Today visited the school to talk to its director, Koen Cosaert.

Most people probably think of a carillon as a bell tower, but in fact the word refers to the musical instrument – the heaviest of all the world’s instruments – which is usually housed in a tower, but not always. In the middle ages, the bell tower was the forerunner of the instrument, and in the Low Countries and adjoining areas in Germany and the north of France, the generally flat landscape made a network of bell towers the perfect means for spreading warning signals of attack, or alarms for fires. Most still perform the old function of sounding the hours, but the first musical use of the bells is thought to have been in Oudenaarde in the 16th century.

How did Mechelen then become the centre of the carillon world?

“Everything has to do with the man whose portrait you see everywhere, Jef Denyn, after whom the school is also named,” Cosaert explains. “He was the city carillon player for Mechelen, starting in 1887. And it could be said he was the man who put the carillon on the map. Without his influence, we would probably still have carillons in towers as museum pieces. But we would not have the living carillon culture that we have today and that has spread over the entire world.” 

A new musical language

It helped that Mechelen, as the seat of the primate of the country’s Catholics, happened to have a magnificent carillon in the tower of Sint-Rombouts cathedral. The city was also centrally placed for visitors from Antwerp and Brussels, at the centre of the then new railway network, which helped Denyn in his crusade. 

His way of playing appealed to people

- Carillon school director Koen Cosaert

For starters, Denyn improved the instrument technically and mechanically, so that a greater degree of expression and virtuosity became possible. This made it possible to develop a new language for the carillon.

“Before him, the carillon was used as a sort of ersatz piano or harpsichord,” Cosaert explains. “They would take an existing score for piano, for example, and try as far as possible to adapt it to being played on the carillon, but without ever taking the particular sound character of the bells as a departure point.”

Denyn, however, was an extremely good improviser, and an improviser, Cosaert points out, listens to his instrument. “And the language he heard was romantic – he happened to be right in the middle of the Romantic period in music – and his way of playing appealed to people.”

A lasting contribution

His revolutionary playing method soon caught the public’s attention, and he was invited to perform in a series of evening concerts in 1892, the first in the history of the instrument. They were performances of the most public sort: no point in selling tickets when the music is booming out from the top of the cathedral tower to the whole city. The carillon as a true musical instrument was born.

“Where previously it had been used as background music to public events, now it had become a concert instrument.” Referring to Denyn, Cosaert explains: “He became so popular, the story goes, that from 1900, people would travel on Monday evenings in the summer from Antwerp and Bruges on special trains laid on because so many people were coming to Mechelen for the event.”

The trend then spread to other carillon cities like Bruges, also well-situated on the rail network, which attracted the sort of posh foreign tourists who frequented Ostend. Among them was Henry Longfellow, the American poet, who devoted two poems – “The Belfry of Bruges” and “Carillon” – to the phenomenon.

Denyn became a celebrity, and it was thought that some way should be found to cement his influence even after his death. The idea of a school would provide an institution that could oversee and represent carillon, where before it had been fragmented and locally based.

“The school would have been set up in 1914, but I think we all know why that never happened,” Cosaert explains. “Denyn went into exile in 1914 in the first weeks of the war, and ended up in Tunbridge Wells in England, and only came back after five years, in 1919.”

The school as we now know it was established in 1922, and until 1935 was the only one of its sort in the world. 

Artistic karate

A carillon is a musical instrument made of a series of bells of different sizes, each of which produces a different note. The standard size is four octaves, made up of 47 bells, which are fixed in position and remain static. The player uses a clavier made of wooden batons that are played with the side of the hand, as well as a set of foot pedals to manipulate the clappers of the bells to strike the bronze interior. 

The image of the carillonneur as a strongman no longer matches the reality

- Koen Cosaert

“So it’s like an organ in being played with hands and feet, but also like a piano in that we can play dynamically and expressively, hard and soft and everything in between, which can’t be done on the organ,” Cosaert explains.

The carillon used to demand some physical strength, especially since the clappers of some bells weigh upwards of 40kg. But technical advancements have made the work easier and opened up the instrument to anyone. “For the last 10 years, we’ve had a children’s department in the school, so children can play carillon from the age of eight,” Cosaert explains.

“They might not be able to play the pedals right away, but things go really fast, and children can even play on the heavy carillon of Sint-Rombouts,” he continues. “What they can’t do of course is play a one-hour concert the way professionals do. They have to grow into that. So the image of the carillonneur as a strongman, or what the former director used to call ‘artistic karate’, that image no longer matches the reality.”  

A vibrant carillon culture

Thanks to the contacts he made while in England, and the growing interest in carillon in general, Denyn was able to attract the attention of international backers. One of the most prominent, who remained a supporter until the 1930s, was American tycoon John D Rockefeller Junior. 

Thanks to Rockefeller, carillons were built across the US at universities in Florida, Michigan and California. They also form part of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa as well as monuments at Iowa State University and in Wellington, New Zealand. At the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago, there’s a massive carillon with no fewer than 72 bells, while the 74-bell Wellington monument has the largest bass bell in the world, weighing 12.5 tonnes, compared to Sint-Rombouts’ nine tonnes.

The school has always attracted students from around the world. This year there are 62 students, including eight-year-olds and local seniors, and music students from 13 countries, including the US, Japan, South Korea and Ukraine. That’s part of the importance of the Unesco recognition.

“This institution played a major role in the work to win Unesco recognition. Without Denyn and without this school, there would be no living worldwide carillon culture. It’s extremely important for us,” Cosaert says. “Of course, it doesn’t involve any financial benefit, but the carillon world is a small world: 90 instruments in Belgium, maybe 250 people playing the instrument at the very most.”

That means that most carillon musicians are a small fish in the large pond, always having to do their own promotion, and defending their corner. “Most players depend on local administrations for their stipend and for the maintenance of the instrument,” Cosaert says. “Obviously, in times of financial savings, culture always suffers, and it can be that as local carillonneur you’re faced with cuts. Then you’re on your own.”

The Unesco recognition changes all that. Cosaert: “Now there’s a global organisation that is above all that and says: ‘Look, what those people in Belgium are doing is of global importance’.

“Unesco is also giving us the title of Best Safeguarding Practice. That’s a way of saying those Belgian carillonneurs and the carillon training in Belgium have done so well in the last 100 years to take an instrument from the past and create a blooming culture.”

Photo courtesy Visit Flanders

Carillon

This musical instrument was invented in Flanders in the 15th century. Carillon culture in Flanders peaked in the 17th century. Together with the Netherlands, Belgium boasts one of the largest carillon collections in the world.
History - Bell towers were originally emergency beacons in the flat Flemish landscape. They were first used to make music about 500 years ago.
School - Flanders is home to the world-renowned Royal Carillon School in Mechelen. Founded by then city carillonneur Jef Denyn in 1922, it became the first institute in the world dedicated to the study of carillon.
Heritage - Unesco has recognised carillon culture as part of Flanders’ immaterial cultural heritage.
1

carillon per 100,000 inhabitants in Flanders

4

carillons in city of Mechelen

1 510

first historical mention of carillon playing in Flanders