The carillon in Dutch culture
2023-03-25 | By Olivia van den Broek-Neri | Photo by Christiaan Winter
Often housed in bell towers, the carillon is a musical instrument consisting of (at least) 23 bells which ‘ring out’ when played on a keyboard. The keyboard is similar to a piano or organ and each ‘key’ (or baton) is linked to a bell with a different pitch. Carillonneurs (players) can perform a broad range of music on the carillon, but what is the link between this instrument and the Netherlands.
Chances are, you have heard a carillon being played when shopping in the city centre or during a celebration of a special event such as the King’s birthday. Many people are used to hearing the ringing bells but perhaps do not know the important role the instrument has played in Dutch culture. Leo Samaama, Secretary of the Koninlijke Nederlandse Klokkenspel-Vereniging (Royal Dutch Carillon Association) says, “It is a typical Dutch instrument and belongs to the sound of the city.”
Carillons have played an important part in Dutch society for many centuries. In the beginning, the instrument largely played melodies relating to church services but because the bells were located in towers–and their sound could reach a wide area–they also served as a warning system. Carillon bells would warn villagers of an approaching storm, the arrival of military or the mailman, and boats coming in from sea. “The carillon had a very important role in connecting people,” explains Samaama.
In carillon history, two significant individuals were the Hemony brothers. “The two [Hemony] brothers were really the first to make bells in Europe that were so extremely fine-tuned, they could be used for musical sounds,” explains Samaama. “We call them the Rembrandts of the Carillons!”
Although the making of bells existed as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, it was difficult to properly tune bells until the Hemony brothers came along. “The brothers made the carillons a full-fledged instrument on which you could play anything,” Samaama adds. “Whatever you wanted to play on the bells could be played.”
As a result of the Eighty Years’ War and churches being reformed, the music–and therefore the carillons–were suddenly disconnected from the church and owned by the town. Still today, most towers where carillons are housed are owned by the city, which makes them vulnerable to budget cuts. As a result, some villages, towns, and cities no longer have money to pay for a carillon and carillonneur. “For the last ten to fifteen years, the carillonneurs have had to fight to keep their jobs,” says Samaama. Paid by the city, their fees are controlled by the state.
The Koninlijke Nederlandse Klokkenspel-Vereniging (KNKV) is working to preserve the art of carillons in the Netherlands. Founded in 1918, it received royal in front of its name when reaching 100 years in existence. Its board consists of people who make bells, teach, or are in committees all over the country–supporting the carillon in villages, towns, and cities.
The KNKV helps preserve this important part of Dutch culture, and also helps protect carillonneurs because there is more at stake than just the loss of a Dutch tradition. Getting rid of a carillonneur means there is no longer someone controlling the bells in the tower. “Whomever controls the bells, controls the system, and can also call officers to come and fix what has to be repaired,” Samaama remarks.
Carillons can be found around the world–on university campuses in the United States, across Europe, in Japan, and of course in the Netherlands. “We have 70 officially assigned carillonneurs in the Netherlands,” says Samaama, “and they play on 120 different instruments all around the country.” There are five carillons alone in the centre of Amsterdam.
Students in harmony
The Netherlands Carillon School is one of a few places in the world offering a conservatoire programme in the carillon. Part of the HKU Utrechts Conservatorium since 1985, the school is located in Amersfoort and offers a Bachelor of Music. Its alumnus number more than 250– half of which are internationals–and includes the carillonneur for Utrecht and Nijmegen, Malgosia Fiebig.
Christiaan Winter is one of two permanent instructors at the school and is also the carillonneur for Alkmaar and De Rijp (North Holland) and considers it a privilege to teach such talented students. “Not only do you educate people in playing an instrument, but in maintaining the culture of the carillon and the role it has in our Dutch culture,” Winter explains. “We have two students who are 19 and 21-years-old,” he says, “and the oldest student at the moment is 61.”
Of the current ten students, only one is not Dutch. Winter explains that most of the students have already followed another musical education. “We have some organists who are doing this study now to increase their possibilities in the musical field.”
Music has always played an important role in bringing people together and that has continued to reign true over the last few years. During lockdown, Samaama recalls that residents reached out to show their appreciation for the carillons that brought music to otherwise abandoned towns.
“When the war in Ukraine started, for my first recital in Alkmaar I played “Imagine” by John Lennon,” says Winter. “Someone sent me an email to say it was a good statement for this moment.”
Winter also recognises the importance of bringing people together through the music he plays. “The special thing is that it is the only public instrument you have,” he says, “You are not playing for a specific group because everyone on the street is your audience.”
And long may that continue.
Did you know?
The oldest and largest carillon school in the world is the Royal Carillon School “Jef Denyn” in Mechelen, Belgium.
The Netherlands, like other European countries, has its share of traditions and festivities. Click here to learn more.
About the author
California-native Olivia van den Broek-Neri works as Project Coordinator Communications & Events at Holland Expat Centre South in Eindhoven and was previously an ACCESS volunteer.