Denyn, Jef

Mechelen, 19/03/1862 > Mechelen, 02/10/1941


Denyn, Jef

by Karolien Selhorst

Saying "carillon" equals saying "Jef Denyn" (or Denijn). The importance of this Mechelen-based carilloneur, teacher and composer can hardly be overestimated.

Initially Jef Denyn studied engineering. His father, Adolf Denyn, was the city carilloneur of Mechelen, but when he became blind Jef had to substitute from Easter 1881 on. Later Jef decided to apply himself completely to the instrument. In 1887 he was appointed city carilloneur of Mechelen, in succession to his father. He remained self-taught, except for some music lessons and occasional advising from his father.

The art of the carillon, after a golden age in the 17th and early in the 18th century, declined dramatically in the 19th century, due to wars, revolutions, theft of bells, but also because of the attitude of the new bourgeoisie, who felt more attracted by the fashionable concert hall than by a popular instrument such as the carillon. As much as three quarters of the bell towers in Flanders were looted with a view to producing coins or weapons. This problem was compounded by the fact that the bell-founders had lost the secret of pure tuning. It looked for a while as if the art of the carillon was doomed. But halfway in the 19th century Adolf Denyn managed to engineer a revival in Mechelen. He emphasized the musical aspect of the carillon again. Jef Denyn followed up his father’s work and led it to a climax. If Denyn is considered the patriarch of the contemporary art of the carillon, this is due to several innovations that he introduced into carillon playing and technique.

Jef Denyn promoted a new connecting system, put between key and clapper. With these so-called tumblers the vertical movement of the key could be transmuted into a horizontal movement of the clapper. Denyn also mutually connected the clappers of several bells with a view to preventing lateral movements of the clappers. Finally he used leaf springs to withdraw the clapper from the bell side immediately after the touch. This new system became the thing, as it was the enabling condition for more brilliant playing. Ever since, practically all carillons in Europe and America have been built according to this Denyn system. Admittedly the system has been improved during the last decades, but essentially it is still the standard for carillon construction.

In addition to being a technical innovator Denyn was also a gifted virtuoso. His technique was versatile and his musical feeling subtle. The so-called “legato singing” technique - when the carilloneur makes the carillon “sing” through the rapid alternation of two or more notes - became due to the influence of Jef Denyn the trademark of the Flemish art of the carillon. His unsurpassed virtuosity enabled him to re-invigorate attention for this almost forgotten instrument. He was frequently invited as a guest player and performed at home and abroad with ever growing acclaim. From 1892 on he organised the summer evening concerts in his native city. These concerts on the carillon of St Rombouts gradually became a household word: thousands of listeners flocked to the concerts, even from abroad. The programme regularly featured (adaptations of) works by Peter Benoit, Karel Mestdagh, Emiel Hullebroeck, Joris De Bom, Jef Van Hoof: home-grown contemporary composers. Reciprocally the influential Peter Benoit, with compositions such as Daar zal de beiaard klinken from the Rubens cantata, contributed to the revival of the carillon in terms of contemporary music, after a long banishment to the domain of mere folklore.

Denyn’s popularity was such that his silver jubilee as carilloneur in 1912 became a genuine popular fest day. The king dubbed him a knight in the order of Leopold. In the Mechelen carillon an inferior bell was replaced by a jubilee bell with the inscription: to the great carilloneur Jef Denyn, the admiring people (1912).

Jef Denyn undertook a virtual crusade on behalf of the restoration and improvement of many bells in Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Scotland, … For restorations or newly designed carillons his advice was always decisive. His approach was always comprehensive: the tower, the bells, the bells’ room, the keyboard, the connection between key and clapper. He always developed a sense of harmony between the constituent parts. Denyn published several technical works about the carillon (e.g. Inrichting en behandeling van het klokkenspel/Design and Operation of the Carillon, 1919), and determined the measurements of the ‘standard console (manual and pedal keyboards)’.

At the outbreak of the First World War Denyn fled with his family to Tunbridge Wells in England. The thread was resumed upon his return in 1919. Four years later, in 1922, the International Carillon School was founded in Mechelen with Jef Denyn as its director (his tenure lasting until his death in 1941). The prospectus written by Jef Denyn for the new carillon school as early as 1913 shows influences of Benoit’s General Syllabus, as conceived in 1898 for the Antwerp Conservatory. Distinctive is the programming, in addition to the traditional courses, of topics intended to fortify the musician’s cultural backbone. Countless prominent carilloneurs spent formative years there and the school still enjoys a great international reputation as of today. The first graduates were Staf Nees and Kamiel Lefèvere in 1924. For thirty years the Mechelen carillon school was in a position to boast its status as a one-of-a-kind school in the whole world.

Jef Denyn also composed some works for the carillon. He wrote e.g. an Ave Maria, an Andante cantabile, and a Siciliano, as well as some preludes. Jef Denyn died on 2 October 1941, one month before the German invader decreed the seizure of the bells in Belgium. Fortunately this decree was enforced only partially, due to a compromise negotiated with the occupier by the Committee for the Saving of the Bells in Belgium.

© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Karolien Selhorst (translation: Joris Duytschaever)