The word “carillons” recalls memories of childhood: all of us have had, or at least wanted, one of those delightful little music boxes that, when opened, sent their comforting silvery notes into the air.
However, not everyone knows that the name of these magical music boxes derives from the fact that they use the same “technology” that was invented in the Flemish countries to ring concerts of bells “a carillion”, which is, holding the bells stationary and hitting them with an external hammer.
The “carillons” originated in Belgium and Holland in the 15th century and then spread to France, Germany and, finally, all of Europe. The word “carillon” derives from the Latin “quadrinio”, which indicates a group of four bells. In fact, in the Middle Ages, the bell ringer struck four fixed bells in the clock tower, to warn that he was about to strike the hour. The number of bells increased over the years and, to lighten the bell ringer’s work, the Flemish invented a rotating cylinder with wooden pegs. The pegs moved levers and these, in turn, controlled the hammers that struck the bells.
In 1510, someone adapted a wooden keyboard to the nine bells of the clock tower of Audenarde. The idea was copied by all the other Flemish cities and spread throughout Europe. This clever device allowed creating concerts of bells that were musically very rich, and which were further enriched when a way was found to apply a pedalboard to the bell concert for producing heavy sounds.
Even today, keyboards for ringing carillon bells are very common; they are installed in the belfry and, by means of levers and rods connected to all the bells, the bell ringer, seated as if at a piano, by energetically pushing the appropriate keys on the keyboard can execute the traditional local sequences and allegrettos.
This is a joyful way of ringing reserved for important feasts of particular cheerfulness. Unfortunately, working keyboards that are still in use are becoming more and more rare and the sounds once produced by expert bell ringers are today produced by computerized systems that are as passive as they are infallible, but which, nevertheless, allow keeping alive and handing down those sounds that would otherwise be destined to disappear.
The numerous Bell Ringers Associations that are found throughout Italy, through their romantic and somewhat goliard passion, contribute to handing down the traditional sounds and maintaining vivid interest in the fascinating harmonies of the sacred bronzes. Invited by parishes on feast days when they don’t have to work, the bell ringers circulate through the squares of Italy with very well equipped, itinerant concerts of bells installed on trucks; producing complicated virtuoso performances and sometimes even organizing contests, these romantic gladiators battle against cold computers, animating and warming the air with their cheerful sounds.