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American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: E (Part 2 – Eyck, Jacob van)

This week we’ll break with our series a bit to discuss the life of a blind musician from outside of the United States.

Had someone mentioned a composer named van Eyck to me when I was a child, I might have guessed that he was born before or during World War II. When I heard the name last week, I thought he might be a contemporary composer. So when I looked him up on the Internet, I was amazed to discover that he was born in 1589 or 1590. And he became a flutist, carillonneur, and an expert on the casting and tuning of bells.

One of five children, Jacob was born in Heusden, a town in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant. He was born blind, and his father died when Jacob was still a child. As a young man, van Eyck became fascinated with bells and carillons. At the time, Heusden had but one carillon, located in the tower of the town hall. Jacob learned about this instrument, and in January, 1622, he was hired to change the pegs in its mechanical drum., Occasionally, he was asked to play it. The next year he traveled to Utrecht, where he repaired the carillon in the Dom’s tower, then the highest building in Holland. 1624 found him again in Utrecht, doing repair work on the chimes at City Hall.

More and more people heard van Eyck play the carillon during these years, but then, as now, it was often difficult for a blind person to get a job. Nevertheless, in 1625, after difficult negotiations, he became the carilloneur at the Dom in Utrecht. This instrument had 12 bells; soon he acquired six more, tuned them, and added them to the carillon. This was followed, in 1626, by a trip to the Hague, where he improved the City Hall carillon. And in 1628 he became Directeur van de Klockwerken, entrusted with the care of all the carillons in Utrecht. Isaac Beeckman, a scientist from this period, wrote that “van Eyck knew how to isolate five ‘partials’ in one bell, and discovered how the sound is influenced by the shape of the bell.”

He also played the recorder and was hired to play in shopping areas to keep away troublemakers. It seems that a young musician, intrigued by Jacob’s beautiful variations on popular songs of the day, began writing down these improvisations. Eventually they were published as “Fluyten Lust-hof” (The Flute’s Pleasure Garden). Containing more than 140 pieces, it is one of the largest collections of pieces for any solo instrument.

Braille music readers may sample a portion of this collection by borrowing BRM33491, transcribed by Braille Press Zurich in 1991. In addition, we have two books regarding carillon: Fugue in G Minor (BRM22967), written for carillon as well as a book called Campanology: A Handbook for the Carillonneur (BRM22911).

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