For whom the bell tolls: carillon culture in Flanders
From the dulcet chime of early Renaissance polyphony to the electronic clash of 1980s New Beat: Belgium’s rich back catalogue of music has had no shortage of international hits. The truly seminal sound of the Low Countries, however, is famous for not venturing beyond its cities’ walls—it is produced by the carillon, a unique musical instrument that consists of an arrangement of chromatically sequenced bronze bells, typically suspended in a church tower or belfry. The carillon has furnished the vibrant soundtrack to the life and times of Flanders for more than 500 years. Now, in 2014, the storied bells of Belgium’s own carillon culture have every reason to sound in celebration; they are about to take their rightful place on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.
A unique bellwether
Since time immemorial, the role of the carillon has been that of a Greek chorus, primed to express the social, religious and civic rhythms of the city. Through special concerts or punctual recitals, its resounding yet unobtrusive presence is not only meant to mark a specific time or occasion, but also to create a singular ambiance for everyone (within earshot) to share in and enjoy. In effect, the instrument has always been both a medium and a measure of the community it belongs to. Echoing, subverting, embellishing or commemorating the local themes and talking points, the carillon is a real mainstay of urban identity. And because its kaleidoscopic music belongs to the people, its performance is absolutely free of charge!
Playing the carillon, the heaviest of all instruments (some weigh in excess of 20 tonnes), requires great timing and skill. The carillonneur uses his fists and feet to produce a tune on the carillon ‘keyboard’—a series of levers and pedals physically connected to clappers inside the stationary bells. The player’s movements are only slightly more elaborate than those of a typical pianist, but the amplified results are nothing short of epic, producing vibrations that demand instant attention. From far and wide, new generations of musicians continue to flock to the world-renowned carillon school in Mechelen to master this ancient craft, which has kept the old tradition very much alive and kicking. In the absence of the local carillonneur, the bells are played by an automatic mechanism. In their day, these huge rotating drums (like oversized piano rolls) were marvels of modern engineering, especially in the late 1600s and 1700s, when the carillon lived its golden age.
After that came periods of severe censorship and wanton destruction (two world wars), but through it all the bells never stopped ringing. In numerous Flemish cities like Antwerp, Leuven, or Bruges, townsfolk and visitors still gather on the market squares to hear the carillon in concert, broadcasting its good vibrations and whatever moves the soul. Then as it is now, the instrument excels in musical covers, expertly adapted or modified to suit its deep and resonant voice. This penchant for popular music fits in with the carillon’s age-old function as a communal and thoroughly democratic bellwether: alerting the public to the latest trends and fashions, it is perhaps the only musical instrument in existence that quite literally plays to the crowd.
Carry on carillon
That is not to say that nothing has changed. In the previous century, the instrument gathered a huge following in North America, where it became a powerful symbol of a shared and indomitable spirit, a palpable link to a fascinating past. In this century, true to form and the latest trend, the carillonneur has a Twitter account and regularly invites the crowd to send in feedback or requests. People can also listen to the carillon do battle with anything from symphony orchestras to DJs, or watch the action unfold through big-screen projections and live streams. There is even mobile carillon, roaming the country to tell its stories in the townships that still miss the charm of a tower carillon. The towers that have stood the test of time, however, are open to visitors who are keen to look inside the belly of the beast. Be warned, though: sufferers of vertigo might find the experience a bit overwhelming.
Going forward, the Flemish carillon, or Beiaard, is an instrumental institution that continues to explore the thin line between innovation and tradition. While they embrace experiments and crossovers, the guild of carillonneurs also protects the cultural legacy of their chosen instrument by making sure they do not confuse or injure its original authority and function—to capture and reflect the daily lives and dreams of its diverse audience, thereby giving voice and relief to the socio-cultural landscape that lies within its reach. The state of Flemish carillon culture, you ask? Sound as a bell.
For more info on the Flemish carillons and carillon concerts, check out:
Story created on February 11, 2015