Antwerp, Belgium — THE stillness of the noontime air was broken by the silvery sounds of the carillon as it pealed forth the melody of Pierlala, an old 18th-century Flemish folk tune. This shimmering sound was just the beginning of an hour-long recital that the ``town carillonneur'' - Jo Haazen - gives each day at Antwerp's famous cathedral. Playing from his own manuscript arrangement - as all the best carillonneurs are wont to do - he controlled with his fists and feet the levers at the keyboard. The levers operate the hammers that strike each of the 47 chromatically tuned ``dead hung'' bells in this, the city's largest and most famous carillon. The bell tower rises some 400 feet into the air, a spire that dominates the skyline of the ``old city.'' Almost every church in Antwerp has a carillon of its own, and the ringing of their perfectly cast bells provide the city with one of its most characteristic musical sounds.
Since the 15th century, Antwerp and nearby Mechelen have been the world's most important centers for learning the art of the carillon. Most of the best carillonneurs have, at one time or another, studied here.
During the Renaissance, Antwerp was as famous for its composers as for its carillons and carillonneurs. Flemish composers fanned out across Europe to dominate and control the music at the courts of France, Germany, Austria, Italy, England, Spain, Poland, and Hungary as well as at the papal court.
Composers such as Johannes Ockeghem, who began his career here as a boy chorister at the cathedral in Antwerp in 1443, and Ciprano de Rore, who was born in the city in 1516, were among the most important of the Renaissance composers, surpassed in fame only by Ockeghem's pupil, Josquin Des Prez, who is considered one of the greatest composers of all time. His music is part of the rich Flemish heritage, and his works regularly appear wherever great choral music is sung.
The sounds of the city's carillons and the glorious harmonies of Flemish choral music are only part of the many musical delights - both old and new - that can be discovered in this center of Flemish culture and tradition. A musical excursion Antwerp
A butcher shop may sound like a funny place to begin a tour, but for the visitor who is interested in Flemish music, the Vleehuis (Flemish for ``butcher's house'') with its concert series of Old Music is a striking place to start. A masterpiece of late Gothic architecture, it is built of brick with ``fat layers'' of white stone for aesthetic contrast. The main hall, with its 25-foot vaulted ceilings, originally provided stalls for 62 butchers. On the second floor there was a meeting room, a chapel, and a bridal room. (Butcher's children were expected to marry other butcher's children.)
The Vleehuis today is an impressive museum of Flemish culture centered around an important historical collection of musical instruments. The most noted part of the display is formed by the harpsichords. Between 1579 and 1667 the Rucker family of Antwerp built the most famous harpsichords in the world, noted both for the mechanical improvements the Ruckers introduced to them and for the beauty of their tone. Flemish painters Van Dyck and Bruegel, among others, painted the lids of such harpsichords. Even the soundboards were decorated in tempera with fruit, flowers, birds, and insects, surrounded by blue scrolls.
Concerts of early music are given on Sunday afternoons at the Vleehuis. (This year's series concluded March 22.) One recent concert featured French music of the early 1700s for combinations of recorders, cellos, and harpsichord. The most fascinating work on the program was Jean Barri`ere's Sonata in B-flat for cello and harpsichord. The second movement was a showpiece of virtuosity for cellist; the third was remarkably romantic with its rich harmonies that moved slowly from one chord to another, mostly built out of double and triple stops and chords played as arpeggios. Chamber concerts
Sunday morning concerts that feature the Chamber Orchestra of the Flemish Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are highly popular, especially with parents who want to take young children to a concert. The Campo Gallery, which seats about 500, provides a pleasant ambiance in which to enjoy the music.
I heard the last of this season's five concerts. The program began with Johann Sebastian Bach's Concerto for Violin and Oboe. Bulgarian violinist Dimitri Ivanov was the violin soloist, Piet van Bockstal the oboe soloist. Mr. Van Bockstal has a warm, expressive tone that was highlighed in the slow movement's song-like duet for solo violin and oboe.
The program included Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and Edvard Grieg's Holberg Suite. There were some problems with intonation in the Barber, but otherwise it went well. The Holberg Suite brought the program to an enthusiastic close.
Antwerp has another chamber orchestra, the Kamerorkest Walter Proost, which presents a series of six concerts a year. This 30-piece ensemble, which includes a wind compliment of horns, oboes, and bassoons in addition to strings, presents programs built around themes: American music; symphonies and concertos by classical composers; and a program of music by composers associated with London. One highlight of this year's series will be the June 22 performance of Mozart's Odense Symphony, a childhood work recently discovered in Denmark.
Thanks to such orchestras as this, the names of Flemish composers have begun to appear on concert programs again after almost 400 years of silence. Jef Maes, best known for his opera of 1946, Marise, and his television opera of 1959, De antikwaar (The Antique Dealer), will be represented on the chamber orchestra's April 6 program by his Instrumental Po"ema. Also to be heard on this concert are Frits Celis' Muziek voor strijkers (Music for Strings) - a work written in a laissez-faire manner and sparingly seasoned with atonality - and Willem Kertser's Serenade, which reveals in its contrapuntal lines traits of the classical Flemish school. Opera and chamber opera
The Opera House in Antwerp is a handsome Victorian structure erected in 1905. Its main hall is of a pseudo-Baroque design draped in heavy maroon velvet. Ornate gold stucco work decorates the cream- and pink-colored walls. It's a small house, seating about 900. The acoustics are bright. In fact, they proved to be too much so for the performance I heard of La Boh`eme, as the conductor, Silveer Van den Broeck, insisted on full orchestra at every climax, thus drowning out both the tenor and the soprano. (He also has the distinction of leading by far the fastest Boh`eme that it's ever been my misfortune to hear.)
The Mimi - Penelope Mackay - was one you could fall in love with. She is both a fine actress and has a pleasing voice of great potential. Since Mimi is always costumed in a plain, often unattractive dress with hair style and color to match, I always wondered what Rudolfo could possibly see in her. With Miss Mackay's performance I finally learned the answer. Her eyes sparkled, her every look at Rodolfo spoke of love.
There was a last-minute substitution for Rodolfo, Romanian tenor Antonius Nicolescu, who has a ringing tone and a voice of considerable size and power.
The season includes Salome in March; Parsifal in April; Don Giovanni, A"ida, and Evita in May and June.
Much more daring and musically exciting was a performance of the Vlaamse Kameropera, the Flemish Chamber Opera: a double-bill of Arnold Sch"onberg's Pierrot Lunaire fully staged, and American composer Domenic Argento's Miss Havisham's Wedding Night.
Sch"onberg's Pierrot Lunaire represents an age of Expressionism and atonalism in music, of art nouveau and Secessionism and jungende stile in art and decoration. Stage director/costume and set designer Peter Jonckheer put it together so skillfully and tastefully, that it proved that the composer's original concept of Pierrot as a stage piece was correct.
Lieve Jansen sang the leading role in both Pierrot and Miss Havisham's Wedding Night, both one-role operas! A most convincing actress, she possesses a voice that can handle the sprechstimme of the Sch"onberg piece as easily as she can adapt to the difficult vocal lines of the Argento opera.
Emiel Rooman was extremely effective in the mimed role of Pierrot. The excellent orchestra was conducted ably by Jean-Jacques Werner. The creative lighting, which greatly enhanced the Sch"onberg work in particular, was by Eric Smets.
With such musically excellent programs - and with programs of works by contemporary Flemish composers (like the program planned by the Kamerorkest Walter Proost) - the Flemings' musical culture seems sure to continue far into the future.