Carillon History

The carillon is an extraordinary musical instrument with a history as rich as it is long.  For more than five centuries, the carillon has been a voice for the hopes, aspirations and joys of humankind.

Carillons evolved in the lowlands of Holland, Belgium and northern France.  The rich mercantile towns of the lowlands exhibited their status by installing fine carillons in their church towers and arranging tunes to be played every quarter hour - or still more often - by an automatic mechanism.  The town carillonneur played on market days and holidays.  It was said that good bells and good schools were the sign of a well-run city.

The first well-tuned carillon was cast by the brothers Pieter and Francois Hemony, and installed in Zutphen, the Netherlands, in 1652.  The Hemonys produced many fine instruments; their work set a standard to which modern carillons are still compared.  By the time of the French Revolution, changing musical tastes and the wars sweeping across Europe put an end to the first "golden age" of the carillon.  Although several Flemish and French founders continued to make large sets of bells, the tuning secrets of the Hemonys and their successors were lost.  In addition, new "power" mechanisms were developed to make the carillon easier to play; unfortunately, these mechanisms sacrificed musicality for loudness and ease of playing.

Just before the turn of the 20th century, there was a resurgence of interest in this ancient instrument, due in large part to the efforts of Jef Denyn, carillonneur in Mechelen, Belgium.  He improved the musical qualities of his carillon and began a series of weekly concerts that became famous beyond the borders of his own country.  In particular, they inspired an American civil servant, William Gorham Rice, who wrote a series of books popularizing this Old World instrument.  At the same time, developments in England led to the rediscovery of the art of bell tuning.

England never developed a tradition of playing music on sets of bells.  Instead, the English invented a unique system of ringing mathematical variations on bells, called change ringing.  Bells are swung in change ringing, so they were shortened to make them easier to swing.  The negative effect this had on the tone of the bells was a serious consideration in change ringing.  In the latter part of the 19th century, a Church of England clergyman and ardent bell ringer, Canon Simpson, began investigating why English ringing bells sounded so poor.  He published his results in two articles in Pall Mall magazine, entitled "On Bell Sounds" and "Why Bells Sound out of Tune, and How to Cure Them."  Later published in pamphlet form, these articles laid out the principles of five-point tuning, eventually adopted by English bell founders.

The first set of "Simpson" tuned bells was cast by the Taylor bell foundry of Loughborough, England, and installed in Ames, Iowa.  Today, those 10 bells are the foundation of an important carillon at Iowa State University.  Based on Simpson's work and a study after World War II by H. W. Van Heuven of bells removed during the war from towers in the Low Countries, modern founders now consistently surpass the standards set by the Hemony brothers over 300 years ago.

In addition to more accurate tuning, another advance of modern founders is the development of thicker profiles for the small treble bells, so their sound will balance.