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about carillons

> Carillon Fun Facts

> Carillon History

> Gdańsk Carillons

> Main Town Hall Carillon

> St. Catherine’s church carillon

> Mobile Carillon “Gdańsk”

Did you know that…

  • nowadays carillons can be found on every continent except for Antarctica
  • the carillon is the heaviest of all musical instruments
  • there are only (or as many as) 640 carillons worldwide
  • the country with the biggest number of carillons is Holland: there are 180 carillons, of which 6 are in Amsterdam
  • at the dawn of their history carillons played the role of radio: they played popular melodies and cheered up the city dwellers
  • the biggest carillon in the world is the one in Taejon, South Korea – it consists of 78 bells; this extraordinary instrument was built on the initiative of Byung-I Lee, a businessman who wanted to honor his deceased mother: the number of the bells corresponds to the number of the years of her life
  • the heaviest carillon in the world is the Rockefeller carillon in Riverside Church, New York City – it weighs 100 tons and the bourdon bell of this instrument sounds the note C, weighs more than 20 tons and is more than 3 meters in diameter
  • in French the huge carillon shares its name with the tiny glockenspiel and in German the carillon is often called Glockenspiel
  • in the beginning of 20th century, Jacob Vincent, an Amsterdam carillonist enjoyed such great fame that a cigar was named after him: “carillonist J. Vincent – the newest and the best three-cent cigar”
  • during World War II, 46 out of 213 European carillons were destroyed or requisitioned for military needs
  • in Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa there is a carillon which only works in automatic mode now that was built in 1905 by a Mechelen bell-maker for whom it was the first and the last carillon in his career
  • only 18 carillons in the world are mobile instruments – one of them can be found in Gdańsk, unless it is not travelling at the moment
  • in Gdańsk, a unique idea was born, picked up later by many European cities: carillon and electronic music concerts combined with the Heweliusz Fountain shows which was constructed on the initiative of the GIWK (Gdańsk Water and Sewage Infrastructure)

Some of the composers who wrote for carillons:

  • Jakob van Eyck
  • Matthias Van den Gheyn (zwany “Bachem carillonu” lub “belgijskim Bachem”)
  • Joannes Franciscus Volckerick (autor pierwszych oryginalnych romantycznych utworów na carillon)
  • Samuel Barber
  • Edward Elgar
    John Cage
  • George Crumb
    Nino Rota
  • Aleksander Nowak
  • Paweł Mykietyn
  • Elżbieta Sikora
  • Agnieszka Stulgińska
  • Katarzyna Kwiecień-Długosz
  • Zygmunt Krauze
  • Agata Zubel

What exactly is a carillon? A short story of carillons

Carillon is a musical instrument invented in 16th century in the Netherlands in which the sources of sound are bells.
According to the World Carillon Federation definition, a carillon can only be called a set of bells consisting of at least 23 tuned bronze bells which are played either automatically or manually by means of a keyboard, usually made of wood. Smaller instruments or those that cannot be played manually are called chimes. These criteria, however, do not apply to historical instruments built before 1940. The sound scale of modern carillons encompasses at least four chromatic octaves.


Carillons are usually placed in belfries (towers) of churches, town halls or other prominent municipal buildings and also on their facades. There is also a mobile type of the instrument – a carillon placed on a car.

Carillons can be played in two modes: automatically – by means of a mechanical cylinder with pegs, which plays short melodies, or manually when a musician called a carillonist or carillonneur gives a concert.

The history of the carillon dates back to the Middle Ages and is closely related to the history of bells and the development of cities. Violins have souls but amongst musical instruments, bells are the only ones to have hearts (in Polish there is an idiom “a heart like a bell”, meaning a strong, healthy heart, while in English there is a phrase “clear as a bell”). However, there are “heartless” bells: Asian instruments used for liturgical purposes, hit with a small hammer. The earliest bells were discovered in China and they were made during the reign of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 – c. 1050 BC). European and Asian bells differ in shape. There are also spherical bells. In medieval Europe the bells played crucial role in the city life: the sound of bells warned, announced new laws, called to arms, called people to help fight the fire etc. Every guild had their own bell, signalling the beginning and the end of work hours. To this day bells are given names. One of the most spectacular stories of the bells is shown in Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Andrei Rublev.

As early as in 12th century in the Netherlands bellmen called beyaerders, proclaimed important events from church towers moving the hearts of bells by a system of ropes. Probably from this activity the Dutch word beiaard derives, meaning a carillon. The verb beieren means “to rhythmically hit the hearts of unmoving bells”. The baton keyboard was first used in Oudenaarde in 1510 and this date is considered the birth of the carillon.

In the rich mercantile cities of Northern Europe chimes and carillons were a sign of the city status. It was said that a well-managed city had good schools and good bells. The biggest towns could boast of possessing several carillons – except for the municipal carillon they were the instruments in cathedrals and main churches. The town carillonists used to play during holidays and city fairs, they were also supposed to exchange the pegs in the mechanism a few times a year.


Old Netherlands are the fatherland of the carillon. 

Till this day the greatest number of carillons can be found in Holland, Belgium and northern France, though they have also become very popular in the United States. For a long time instruments found outside the Netherlands were rarities and curiosities: instruments appearing in Denmark, France, Germany Portugal, Spain or Russia were the effect of commercial and political transactions with the “flat countries”.

The first carillon encompassing a chromatic scale was the one built and installed in the Dutch city of Zutphen in 1652 by brothers Pieter and Francois Hemony. The talented siblings, supported by the prominent composer, flutist and carillonist Jakob van Eyck from Utrecht, revolutionized the method of tuning the carillon, built 51 instruments together and became the greatest carillon makers in history. Other outstanding families dealing in carillon building were the Waghevens and Van den Gheins from Mechelen in Belgium.


The golden age of carillons  

The golden age of carillons ended along with the change of the musical and historical epoch – the French Revolution and violent changes in habits, customs and tastes that it brought, caused carillons to be forgotten for many years. The art of tuning the bells perfectly was gradually lost, the bell-making business was in crisis and in the thriving bourgeois culture salon music was preferred. In the Romanticism era carillons were considered the relicts of past times. Only it the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century these great instruments had their great comeback.
It happened mostly due to the efforts of the Belgian carillonist Jef Denijn (1862-1941). The musician and constructor from the mentioned above town of Mechelen, revolutionized the playing mechanism and also initiated in 1892 a cycle of Monday evening concerts from the Saint Rumbold’s cathedral tower in his hometown. He founded in Mechelen the first institute of campanology (bell science) in the world. To honor its founder, the still working school has been renamed Royal Carillon School „Jef Denijn”.
During the carillon renaissance it turned out that many bells, among them the excellent Hemony brothers’ instruments, were corroded by the polluted air and needed renovation.

At the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries there was an intensive development of original carillon literature – it was possible thanks to the concert, popularizing and publicist activities of carillon virtuosos. Today numerous solo works for carillon are written but also cameral music is composed – remarkable consonances of the carillon with brass instruments, strings, percussion, choir, tape or an orchestra.

Gdańsk carillons

Gdańsk is the only Polish city that possesses working carillons and there are as many as three of them. When they were built, they were ones of the few carillons outside the Dutch culture region. Unfortunately, none of the original instruments survived till our times, but the carillons on which concerts are given today are direct descendants of those old ones: they are placed on the same towers and sometimes contain parts of the old bells.

Main Town Hall carillon  

The oldest of Gdańsk carillons was installed on the Main Town Hall tower in 1561. The 14-bell instrument was built by Johannes Moor, a well-known bell-maker from Brabant. The carillon only worked in mechanical mode and did not have a keyboard so according to today’s standards it was actually a chime. Its biggest bell weighed 500 kg, the smallest – 25 kg and the whole instrument – almost 2 and a half tons. The bells were ornamented with coats of arms of Poland, Gdańsk and Royal Prussia. They had a quote from Kohelet’s (Ecclesiastes) Book inscribed on them: “Omnia tempus habent et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub coelo” (All things have their time, and they go across the universe under heaven in their own spaces). The tower chime was used by the Main City Council to inform Gdańsk citizens about important events such as royal elections, coronation, paying homage, the king’s recovery from illness, the king’s death, Main City Council elections,St. Dominic’s Fair . The instrument survived till 1945 when, during the Red Army firing, a fire destroyed the tower on which the carillon was installed. Three bells which survived the war are now situated at the Main Town Hall tower entrance.

After the war the tower was reconstructed and in 1959 dummy bells were placed on it. Every hour a music-box like mechanism played the tune of Feliks Nowowiejski’s “Rota” (oath). This regrettable situation ended in 1970 when 17 real bells from Biskupia Górka chime were installed on the tower and then one more bell of unknown origin was added to them. The bells were connected to an electrical control system and a keyboard.
However, after years of operation, the chime mechanism worn out and in 1986 the instrument fell silent.

The new Main City Hall carillon  

The new Main City Hall carillon was built in 2000 in Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry in Asten. The instrument consists of 37 bells. There is an inscription on each of them reading EIJSBOUTS ASTENSIS GEDANO ME FECIT A.D. 2000 (I was made for Gdańsk City by Eijsbouts from Asten in AD 2000). There is also an image of the Polish eagle with the coat of arms of Gdańsk embossed on its chest and an ornament imprinted earlier from one of the preserved bells of Johannes Moor chimes. On the biggest bell the Bible quote from the ancient instrument was repeated. Each bell received a name of a prominent Gdańsk citizen or of an important historical event. The instrument was dedicated to the Pope John Paul II. Some of the bells‘ names are: Solidarity, Schopenhauer Family, Defenders of the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk, Hanza.

The carillon is placed on an open balcony at the top of a high tower which makes it similar to the Dutch carillons – Flemish carillons were usually installed on closed towers.
The overall weight of the bells is 3313 kg so it is an instrument of medium heaviness. The carillon is tuned in mean-tone temperament and it encompasses three octaves from g to a3. It has a European standard keyboard.
The inauguration of the new carillon took place on 31st December 2000: a Dutch carillonist Gert Oldenbeuving gave a concert on it. Since 2001 carillon concerts have taken place on every Saturday at noon.

St. Catherine’s Church Carillon  

There is a woman behind the history of St. Catherine’s Church carillon. In the years 1573-1575 the councilors of the Old Town first started a debate on ordering a carillon which was to be installed on the Old Town Hall tower but the tower proved to be too small. Therefore, a decision was made to place the carillon on the tower of the Old Town parish church, namely St.Catherine’s church. However, the lack of funds prevented the plan from being implemented. In 1728 the councilman Andreas Stendel left in his last will 18 000 florins for the purpose of installing a carillon, provided his widow Dorothea Constantina either died or remarried. After her husband’s death, Dorothea did not die but in 1736 she married again, and whether she liked it or not, she had to pay the legacy. Since the cost of building the carillon and its shipment from Holland was almost 30 000 florins, the City Council organized two lotteries to collect the whole sum. The results exceeded expectations: they managed to collect a staggering amount of 100,000 florins. The bells, cast by Johann Nicolaus Derck from Hoorn, were shipped to Gdańsk on 21st May 1738 but they were played for the first time on 30th November, Saint Andrew’s day, to honor the deceased founder Andreas Stendel. The first carillon, however, turned out to be a fiasco: some people mischievously compared its sound to cow bells. The bells were sent back to Holland and some of them were recast. Saint Catherine’s church carillon was given its second chance in the beginning of December 1739. The new instrument consisted of 35 bells, had a scale of three chromatic octaves, weighed 4,5 tons and its keyboard was made by a Gdańsk organ-builder Andreas Hildebrandt. In 1741 a mechanism for automated mode was installed by a watchmaker Daniel Boettincher, which made it possible to play tunes every quarter of an hour.


St Catherine’s church carillonists recruited from among Gdańsk church organists – in those times they were entitled to service accommodation. Their duties comprised changing tunes on the drum of the mechanism every Saturday and manual playing suitable compositions every day between 11 and 11.30 am and in the summer time also on Sundays and holidays between 5 and 5.30 pm. They were also to play during funerals and City Council elections. A clock overseer was assigned to assist the carillonist: both specialists had to take care of the tower clock, though many times there was a bit of misunderstanding between them.

On 3rd July 1905 St Catherine’s church tower was struck by a lightning. The fire destroyed the carillon. Three years later a new instrument was ordered from the Schilling bell foundry in Apolda in Thurningia. The new carillon consisted of 37 bells and weighed 16760 kg which made it one of the heaviest in the world. The carillon was installed on the tower in 1910. The war did not spare that carillon either: in 1942 on Göring’s order, the bells were sent back for melting. Fortunately, 28 of them survived and today they are a part of the 36-bells carillon on Saint Mary’s church tower in Lübeck.
From the original set of bells, now on the tower of St. Catherine there is only one, weighing 1,5 tons.

new carillon 

In the 80s of the 20th century, on the initiative of Hans Eggebrecht, born in Gdańk, the collection of funds for the construction of a new carillon in St Catherine’s church began. In 1989 37 bells from Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry in Asten in Holland, (from the same place that the Main Town Hall bells) were installed. First the bells only played automatically. The director of the Gdańsk Tower Clock Museum, dr Grzegorz Szychliński, purchased 12 more bells and a keyboard for manual playing. The carillon, placed on a closed church tower (just like the Flemish ones) consisted of 49 equal tempered bells and encompassed four full chromatic octaves from c to c5; it belonged to the class of heavy carillons – especially after adding the last and the heaviest bell. Some of the names of its bells are: Catherine, Peter and Paul, Peace and Reconciliation and they are dedicated to the memory of Andreas Stendel, Janusz Korczak, the victims of war or the parents of Piotr and Paweł Adamowicz.

28th November 1998 is the day when for the first time after the war a carillon concert could be heard in Gdańsk – the concert was given by Gert Oldenbeuving from Holland. Since that day concerts were given every Friday. On 22nd May 2006 another fire broke on the roof of the church but this time all the bells were saved; the concerts, however, were suspended for the next six years: they were only resumed on 24th February 2012. In 2006, when Gdańsk hosted the International Carillon Congress, the fiftieth carillon bell was purchased. It weighs 2835 kg, is tuned in B flat and its name is Catherine. The bell was installed on the tower in June 2013 and in the same year the Gdańsk Tower Clock Museum which is located in the same tower, resumed its activities.

Mobile Carillon “Gdańsk” 

In 2008 the city of Gdańsk ordered in the well-known Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry in Asten, Holland, a mobile carillon, which was installed on a truck semi-trailer. The instrument consists of 48 bells in four octaves and is considered a medium-size carillon. The bells are tuned in exactly the same way as the ones in St. Catherine’s church. The biggest one has an inscription on it reading: EIJSBOUTS ASTENSIS ME FECIT PRO GEDANO A.D. MMVIII OBSERVE SŁAWIĘ MIASTO GDAŃSK [I PRAISE THE CITY OF GDAŃSK] IN MEMORIAM FRANCISCUS DE RIVULO There is also the Gdańsk coat of arms on it.

The inaugural concert took place on 24th May 2009 during the Feast of the City.