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  • The Netherlands Centennial Carillon Tower at Government and Belleville

    By Danda Humphreys


    The Carillon in July 2007.


    You’ve walked past it on the northwest corner of the Royal BC Museum precinct many times. May even have wondered exactly what it is. Looks like an upside-down pepper-grinder. One of 11 in Canada, and the only one west of the Rockies. Ontario got the first, but Victoria got the best. What is it?

    The Carillon—or, to give it its full name, the Netherlands Centennial Carillon Tower— is evidence of a special connection between Canada and Holland. That’s where carillons originated in the mid-17th century as an adjunct to the Dutch tower-clock, announcing the time at frequent intervals with pleasing melodies, and providing hand-played open-air music on festive occasions.

    So that’s what’s standing on the corner, you say—it’s a bell tower! Well, not quite. Unlike the summons to services on Sunday mornings, bells pealing as clappers hit them in response to the tug of bell-ringers’ ropes, carillon bells are stationary. They don’t move when rung, and the carilloneur doesn’t physically touch them while playing. The bells are arranged in chromatic sequence, and are actually played much like the strings on a piano. But there the similarity ends.

    Carillon bells are struck by a series of clappers connected to wires that are connected to a special keyboard located in a small cabin directly below them. This keyboard, known as a clavier, is made up of a series of wooden batons arranged in a row. A piano-player uses a delicate touch to depress the piano keys; a carilloneur uses loosely closed fists to strike the batons, which pull the wires, which cause the clappers to strike the bells.

    Each baton’s weight is determined by the size of the bell it’s attached to; the heavier the bell, the more force required to play it. Heavier bells have batons that are played with the feet. No room for mistakes here! Once a bell has been struck, there’s no way to alter or silence the sound. And the carilloneur must be able to use both hands and feet at the same time, while knowing the correct amount of force required for each bell.

    Sounds like a specialized occupation, and indeed it is. That’s why there’s only a handful of carilloneurs in Canada—and why we’re fortunate to have had two of the very best playing our carillon here in Victoria.

    First was Herman Bergink, who emigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in 1957, and served as organist and choirmaster in several local churches. It was Bergink who, as a founding member of the Dutch Canadian Centennial Committee, spearheaded the fundraising drive that made Victoria’s carillon a reality.

    Forty years ago, during Canada’s Centennial Year, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands laid the cornerstone, presenting the tower and the carillon to Victoria as a gift in recognition of Canada’s role in the liberation of the Netherlands during World War II. The provincial government designed and built the structure, which was completed and officially opened in May 1968. Its 49 bells were cast at the Royal Bell Foundry by Petit & Fritsen at Aarie-Rixtel, in Holland. They were joined in 1971 by 13 more, for a total of 62 bells, making Victoria’s carillon the largest in Canada.

    Several bells are dedicated to landmarks in Victoria’s history. The largest, called the bourdon, weighs around 1500 kilograms and is dedicated to the Centennial of the Formation of the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island, 1849-1949. Others are dedicated to the Centennial of the Establishment of the Crown Colony of BC, 1858-1958; the Centennial of BC joining Canadian Confederation, 1871- 1971; and to the Canadian Soldiers who gave their lives during the liberation of the Netherlands in World War II, 1940-1945.

    Considering the care with which they were created, each bell tells a story, and Herman Bergink played them all with pride until his retirement in 1992. Then Dr Rosemary Laing took over as Provincial Carilloneur. An enthusiastic and versatile musician who serves as the organist of a local church and teaches music at the University of BC, Rosemary has always loved the sound of bells, and learned to play the carillon in 1984. She performs regular recitals from 3-3:45 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays during August. Her wide-ranging repertoire includes everything from classical and folk songs to popular music.

    If you’re downtown at the beginning of August, the joyous pealing of the bells will fill the air as Rosemary “christens” a new clavier, keyboard and pedals paid for by a generous (and anonymous) donor to help celebrate the carillon’s 40th anniversary. And on August 5, the carillon bells will join thundering cannons and fantastic fireworks during the closing moments of The 1812 Overture, the traditional grand finale to Victoria’s annual water-based extravaganza, “Symphony Splash.”

    The Netherlands Carillon—king of all in Canada, and a concrete link with Victoria’s past.

    Danda Humphreys is a local author, historian, and storyteller who finds items of historical interest on Victoria’s street corners. www.dandahumphreys.com.

    This story appeared in the August 2007 edition of Focus Magazine.


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