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Van Balkom family makes careers playing carillon Den Bosch

Street musician strikes keys up high

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

DEN BOSCH, the Netherlands - People in the Brabant capital have been treated to ‘street’ concerts by members of the Van Balkom family since 1915 when grandfather Toon first climbed the stairs in the tower of the St. Jans Cathedral as the city’s carillonneur. After forty years, son Sjef assumed the prestigeous post. Since 1988 grandson Joost mans the console which was installed seventy-five years ago.

Carillon music in Europe belongs to city squares and public markets, and generally adds a festive note to commerce conducted below. Market days and common festivities in the square provide the carillonneur captive audiences who usually do not miss a beat socializing in the streets, checking over merchandise at the market or relax with refreshments on a terras.

The Van Balkom involvement at St. Jans may span three generations and 85 years, the carillon culture has been around much longer. Carillon music was at the height of its popularity during the Golden Age. At Den Bosch it already had hit a low note when Toon van Balkom entered the scene and wanted to improve the carillon installation. By 1925, the carillon’s keyboard or clavier was replaced marking at the same time a shift in the style of music played. Van Balkom preferred the melodious Flemish style while the Dutch tended to support a more formal choral.

New clavier

The 1925 installation was preceded by a public fundraising. The retired console still rests at one of the tower’s platforms. In recent years, the tower’s clock has been computerized and the tunes played every fifteen minutes also are electronically controlled. Among all this modern gadgetry, a five-tonnes bell is the only part of the carillon that predates the disastrous fire of 1548.

To make melodies with a carillon takes considerable effort; at the keyboard, the carillonneur really pummels the wooden hand levers wired to the clappers. No wonder his fists eventually develop calluses on the sides.

This year, the local Foundation for the Carillon pushed its springtime Carillonweek to late summer to coincide with the 75th anniversary date of the ‘new’ clavier. The other highlight is an exhibit at city hall dedicated to the 85th Van Balkom anniversary at the carillon. Finally, carillonneurs - the youngest aged 14 - recently converged on Den Bosch to take part in a series of concerts.

Centuries of carillon music has accompanied Den Bosch’ citizenry in its activities. Carillonneurs anywhere could be called top street musicians, a label the third generation Van Balkom gladly accepts.