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Singing Bronze

Singing Bronze: A History of Carillon Music

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Leuven University Press,
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Singing Bronze
    Book Description:

    The fascinating history of bell music. The carillon, the world’s largest musical instrument, originated in the 16th century when inhabitants of the Low Countries started to produce music on bells in church and city towers. Today, carillon music still fills the soundscape of cities in Belgium and the Netherlands. Since the First World War, carillon music has become popular in the United States, where it adds a spiritual dimension to public parks and university campuses. Singing Bronze opens up the fascinating world of the carillon to the reader. It tells the great stories of European and American carillon history: the quest for the perfect musical bell, the fate of carillons in times of revolt and war, the role of patrons such as John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Herbert Hoover in the development of American carillon culture, and the battle between singing bronze and carillon electronics. Richly illustrated with original photographs and etchings, Singing Bronze tells how people developed, played, and enjoyed bell music. With this book, a fascinating history that is yet little known is made available for a wide public.

    eISBN: 978-94-6166-181-4
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 11-12)

    Around 1500, something unusual happened in a small region along the North Sea. In the cities of the Low Countries, bells in church and city towers were transformed into musical instruments. And thus the carillon was born, the first musical mass medium in history. A rivalry emerged between the cities for larger instruments, and city governments placed ever-greater demands concerning the sound of the bells and the quality of the playing mechanism. Bell-founders and carillon builders met these challenges with varying degrees of success.

    Despite its enormous size, the carillon was fragile. Many instruments fell prey to fire, requisitions and...


    • CHAPTER 1 The magic of old bells
      (pp. 15-26)

      The bell’s history begins in the Bronze Age. With the development of the art of bronze casting around 3000 B.C., humanity took a gigantic step forward. This cast metal had numerous qualities: it was hard yet not breakable, durable yet capable of infinite reuse when remelted. Bronze could be formed into very diverse objects: strong swords, protective shields, useful axes, fireproof kitchenware, refined jewelry, beautiful figurines … and harmonious bells. When in 1200 B.C. bronze began to be replaced by iron as the most important material, this was not because the latter was superior in all respects, but especially because...

    • CHAPTER 2 The time of God
      (pp. 27-38)

      The origin of the Latin word for bellcampanais often linked to the Italian region of Campania. While this claim is uncertain, an important step in the development of the church bell did take place there. In 530, Benedict of Nursia built an abbey on Monte Cassino, a rock along the northern border of Campania. He strove for an orderly and harmonious life within the abbey walls, and to this end, he drew up a number of precepts for his monks. The cornerstone of abbey life was a balanced daily schedule of eight hours work, eight hours prayer and...

    • CHAPTER 3 The time of man
      (pp. 39-48)

      Medieval cities were more lively than their contemporary counterparts. They were small and densely populated, animals and people intermingled, horses with cart rattled over the streets, street vendors and market traders loudly touted their goods, and bells sounded everywhere. In the beginning, these were almost exclusively the bells of churches, abbeys and monasteries that rang out in endless repetition the cycle of canonical tolling. The city dwellers probably no longer answered the call to prayer en masse, but they nevertheless paid attention to the Benedictine tolling. The fixed pattern of bell signals provided citizens with anchor points to organize their...

    • CHAPTER 4 The bondage of time
      (pp. 49-56)

      The increasing use of bells contributed to a new experience of day and night. The gradual lapse of time that was principally determined by the course of the sun, made way for punctual time indication to the rhythm of the bells. The bell-ringers, however, needed the help of sundials or water clocks to know when it was time to ring the bells. Especially the ringing of Matins was a thankless task. Since the bell had to be sounded in the middle of the night, the bell-ringing monk could not make use of a sundial. Moreover, he himself needed an audible...


    • CHAPTER 5 A new musical instrument
      (pp. 59-70)

      In March 1478, the residents of the Northern French – but at the time Flemish – city of Dunkirk heard something very special. The Bruges poet and chronicler Anthonis De Roovere recounts: ‘At this time, a young bell-ringer by the name of Jan van Bevere lived in Dunkirk. He played a variety of existing songs, hymns, sequences, a Kyrie Eleison and all the ecclesiastical chants on his bells. Never before had something like this been heard: it was a great innovation in honor of God.’²² Thus, Jan van Bevere must have been a bell-ringer whose chiming technique was so good that he...

    • CHAPTER 6 Carillon music in a divided land
      (pp. 71-84)

      Over a few decades, the carillon spread throughout the Southern Low Countries, and around 1530, it was considered a typical phenomenon for the region. Presumably there initially was a greater concentration in the County of Flanders. In 1531, Bruges historian Jacob De Meyere wrote that the Flemish surpassed all other residents of the Low Countries with their impressive and splendid churches and their large and harmonious bells, on which they played all types of songs, ‘just like on cytharas.’⁴⁹ Only after 1530 did the carillon penetrate to the northern principalities. The dissemination process was complete by the end of the...

    • CHAPTER 7 Pure bells
      (pp. 85-96)

      On 23 August 1638, René Descartes wrote to colleague-scientist Marin Mersenne: ‘In Utrecht lives a blind man with a great musical reputation, who regularly plays bells (…). I have seen how he elicits 5 or 6 different sounds on each of the largest bells, without touching them, but only by coming close to their sound rim with his mouth …’71 Descartes was living at that time in Utrecht, where he had met the nobleman Jacob van Eyck, city carillonneur and recorder virtuoso. Van Eyck was born blind, but had fabulous hearing, and had demonstrated to the French scientist the physical...

    • CHAPTER 8 Carillon music at the court
      (pp. 97-108)

      François and Pieter Hemony had purified the Low Countries of unpleasing carillon sounds. Most important city towers now housed a carillon that sounded as melodious as any other musical instrument. Foreigners visiting the cities in the region listened with astonishment to the public instruments that offered them daily musical delight. Moreover, some foreign monarchs saw the carillon as a potential means of support for their political or religious objectives, or as a – somewhat oversize – enrichment of their cabinet of curiosities. There was, however, one problem: it was unclear whether the new bell-founders equaled the quality of the Hemonys. This resulted...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Bach of the carillon
      (pp. 109-120)

      Should something like a bell-founder gene exist, it was certainly present in the Vanden Gheyn family. When Willem Van den Ghein settled in Mechelen as bellfounder in 1506, he could not have known that he would found a dynasty of bellfounders that would remain active until well into the 20th century. The career of the Vanden Gheyns, however, was not always a bed of roses.⁸⁷ After the golden age of the 16th century, when the Van den Gheins cast the first carillons, Mechelen entered a period of economic recession, and the family moved on. In 1655, Andries Vanden Gheyn settled...

    • CHAPTER 10 Panorama of the old carillon art
      (pp. 121-136)

      The number of carillons had reached a first high point around 1790. The Southern Low Countries were more densely inhabited with carillons than the Republic in the north, which can be explained by the fact that the Catholic South, in addition to the city carillons also included a large number of church and abbey carillons. Large cities had 5 or more carillons. According to what we now know, more than 100 carillons must have been heard in the Austrian Low Countries, and slightly less than 100 in the Dutch Republic. Together with an estimated 50 carillons in French Flanders and...


    • CHAPTER 11 National Carillon
      (pp. 139-148)

      Habsburg Emperor Joseph II began his rule of the Austrian Low Countries in 1780. As a follower of the enlightened philosophers who throughout Europe reflected critically on the church, politics and science, he supported renewal, and quickly implemented administrative changes in his empire. These changes met with strong resistance in the Southern Low Countries. The old principalities, which had enjoyed a certain level of autonomy under their former governors, felt muzzled, and the Church was uneasy because Joseph II had abolished the contemplative monastic orders. Rebellious groups – calling themselves patriots – formed in various cities. They received growing support, and central...

    • CHAPTER 12 The carillon as romantic symbol
      (pp. 149-164)

      In 1815, the Waterloo victors mapped out the Europe of the future in the Habsburg capital of Vienna. One of the most difficult pieces in the political puzzle was the status of the Low Countries. After considering various scenarios, the superpowers decided that the Low Countries on the North Sea would again be united. France was not allowed to keep the South French territory, and the powers that be found it important to protect themselves from the defeated enemy with a strong buffer state in the north. Thus the Kingdom of the Netherlands was created, with as monarch, William I,...

    • CHAPTER 13 In search of the sound of the past
      (pp. 165-176)

      In the nineteenth century, fascination for the past and unwavering confidence in the future went hand in hand. It was not only the time of ruins and nostalgia, but also the age of railways and steam engines, of mass production and grand World Exhibitions where the latest accomplishments of the human race were on display. The progressive minds of the nineteenth century also focused their attention on carillon construction. The results, however, were not always in proportion to the efforts made.

      In the 19 th century, bell casting was not doing well. The industrial revolution had led to a strong...

    • CHAPTER 14 A soul in peace, among the stars
      (pp. 177-190)

      19th century Mechelen was a sleepy provincial town, geographically hemmed in between the administrative capital of Brussels, the commercial metropolis of Antwerp and the intellectual center of Leuven. The city was a soul mate of Bruges, the other city that relished in nostalgia for a once-glorious past. Romantic souls could dream among the numerous old buildings, the bumpy streets and the brooks that crisscrossed it all. Like Bruges, the historical center became almost literally overshadowed by a mammoth tower from which music emanated. The St. Rumbold’s Tower should have been 167 meters high, but never made it past 97 meters....

    • CHAPTER 15 The broken bells of Flanders
      (pp. 191-206)

      The conflict that later would be called the Great War was not unexpected. After the assassination of the Habsburg heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the cataclysm predicted by all and desired by many approached quickly. Belgium and the Netherlands were neutral and hoped to stay out of the war.

      At the middle of July, the Great Triumphant in the Ghent belfry cracked. The swinging system had been automated shortly before, and this proved fatal to the bell when announcing the Ghent Festival. Hundreds came to examine the crack in...

    • CHAPTER 16 Memorial bells
      (pp. 207-228)

      When the cannons fell silent and the sound of the victory bells had faded, the winners and losers of the Great War gathered in Versailles to once again redraw the map of Europe. During the course of the war, relations between Belgium and the Netherlands had soured for other – more important – reasons than the smear campaign around the carillon. Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paul Hymans claimed Dutch Limburg and Zeelandic Flanders as Belgian territory. In 1919, however, the image ofBrave Little Belgiumwas no longer as strong as it was during the war, and the moral credit that...

    • CHAPTER 17 New carillon construction in the Old Country
      (pp. 229-248)

      After the Great War, the renewal-minded in the Netherlands awaited with impatience the return of Jef Denyn, the man who would make the Dutch carillon towers sing, and bring about the long-expected revival of Dutch carillon culture. Denyn set up the action of the carillons at Nijkerk and Arnhem according to his insights, but the promised result did not materialize: in neither tower did the tremolo playing melt into a unity of sound. The large church tower at Nijkerk was an open lantern and consequently did not approach the acoustic ideal of the closed tower. Denyn had reverb plates installed...

    • CHAPTER 18 ‘The bells fight with us’
      (pp. 249-266)

      The Nazis were fond of bells. The sound of heavy swinging bells supported their efforts to feed the German population ideas of magnificence and destiny. Durable bronze was perhaps even a good metaphor for the immortality of the Thousand-Year Reich that would soon begin. Already in the early 1920s, Dietrich Eckart, the poet to whom Hitler dedicatedMein Kampf, wrote a popular poem titledDeutschland erwache.It opens with the following words:

      Sturm, Sturm, Sturm, Sturm, Sturm, Sturm! Läutet die Glocken von Turm zu Turm!\

      [Storm! Storm! Storm! Storm! Storm! Storm! Ring the bells from tower to tower!]

      On 4...

    • CHAPTER 19 Dutch manufacture versus Carillon Americana
      (pp. 267-284)

      As was the case after the previous war, the carillons contributed to the festivities in liberated Belgium. However, the celebrations were less noisy than those of 1918, because more than half of the bells had been requisitioned and no one knew their fate.²²⁷ On 30 September, the Belgian government returning from London decided to expand the task of the commission for the protection of bells in Belgium to include tracing and returning the missing bells. Since almost all the requisitioned bells had been sent to Hamburg, the commission could only begin its work after Germany had been conquered by the...

    • CHAPTER 20 Innovations in the Old and the New World
      (pp. 285-308)

      The broad American public got to know the carillon in 1953. In that year,Niagaraappeared in the movie theaters, afilm noirby Henry Hathaway with Marilyn Monroe in the leading role and the carillon in an important supporting role. Marilyn plays Rose Loomis, an attractive woman who – with the help of her lover – wants to get rid of her husband George. The carillon of the Rainbow Tower at Niagara Falls is a partner in crime, because after the elimination of her husband, her lover would post a preagreed song as a request in the mailbox under the tower....

    • CHAPTER 21 Panorama of the new carillon art
      (pp. 309-324)

      Today there are approximately 640 carillons worldwide. This is five times more than in 1918, the moment in carillon history at which its number had fallen to a historic low. It is remarkable that the strongest growth has been in the last sixty years, the same period in which new music devices such as the radio, CD and mobile music players should have made the carillon superfluous. The spectacular growth of the carillon, however, occurred across a geographically limited area. Of the 29 countries where carillons can be found, only 10 possess more than four instruments, and the three ‘...

  5. Sources and acknowledgements
    (pp. 325-326)
  6. Origin of the illustrations
    (pp. 351-352)