Road traffic, horns, sirens, deafening construction noise: in the midst of this constant barrage of sound, the sweet melodies of the carillon in Notre-Dame Cathedral float through the avenues and winding streets of Luxembourg City. The 37 bells that make up this extraordinary musical instrument chime every day, from 7am to 10pm, bringing a touch of magic to the streets with their gentle music. To see the carillon, you will need to climb the steps of the cathedral until you reach its highest tower. And there, some 33 metres up, you will find the special musical instrument that creates these unique sounds.
How does the carillon work?
'The carillon can play around 50 melodies,' explains Paul Breisch, the cathedral organist, who also records the carillon melodies. 'Ten years ago, I spent several months producing arrangements – a tricky task because not all piano melodies can be applied to a carillon. Unlike a piano, a bell produces a sound that rings on, while the sound made by a piano disappears as soon as you release the key,' he explains.
A few decades ago, the carillon was operated by an organ with a punched card. 'Now you sit down at a sort of piano made of bells, which is operated by a small electronic keyboard. Each key is linked to a clapper inside a bell, which swings into action when the key is pressed.'
The largest of the 37 bells that make up the carillon weighs 400 kilos and has a diameter of 90 centimetres. It is the only one to bear an inscription (Incipit hora speranti preziosa - for those who hope, a precious hour begins (Abbot Emmanuel Reichling)). The smallest bell weighs 11 kilos and has a diameter of 20.5 cm.
Melodies resounding through the capital
'Before I began operating the carillon, typical Luxembourgish melodies were played one after the other,' remembers Paul Breisch. Nowadays, the repertoire is very varied. Some 60 arrangements of around 50 different melodies are recorded in the instrument's system. These include classics like 'De Feierwon', 'Ech sinn e Groussen Hexenmechter', 'Ech drénken gier mäin Pättchen', 'Un der Atert', 'Kättche, Kättche" and 'Et wor ee Meedche vu Gëtzen".
The melodies are played every hour on the hour and vary depending on the season. In winter, the music brings some warmth to passers-by on pavements and accompanies those working at the Christmas markets throughout the day with typical festive melodies. The tones of 'Léiwe Kleeschen', 'Kanner loost mer lëschteg sinn', 'Venez divin Messie', 'Il est né le divin enfant', 'Ave Maria' and many other well-known Christmas melodies are also part of the repertoire.
But the bells also ring for other occasions during the year, for example for the hopping procession or Pentecost, with 'T'si vill schéi Rousen an der Stad', 'D'Maargréitchen' and 'T'ass Kiermes am Duerf'. To mark the national day festivities, the carillon livens up the capital with the melodies 'Wilhelmus' and 'Léif Mamm', and even the national anthem 'Ons Heemecht'.
The first carillon dates back to 1652
The sound of church bells is part of the city soundscape and provides a unique musical accompaniment. A Dutch company comes to perform regular maintenance once a year to make sure this special instrument can continue bringing music to our ears for a long time to come. 'Sometimes a few hammers or a spring need to be changed. The carillon is like a car,' explains Paul Breisch.
Carillons, which are often several centuries old, were first developed in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The first instrument of this type was created in the late Middle Ages. There are currently more than 600 worldwide, according to a list drawn up by the World Carillon Federation, which also indicates that a carillon must have at least 23 bells to be called a carillon. In general a carillon has a large number of bronze bells, some of which can weigh up to two tonnes.
The world's largest carillon ensemble, with 120 bells, is housed in the Palace of Mafra in Portugal. The country with the most keyboard-operated carillons with at least 23 bells is the Netherlands, with 189 instruments.
History of the cathedral
Located in the centre of Luxembourg City, Notre-Dame Cathedral is a fine example of mediaeval Norman architecture. It was originally a Jesuit church, with the first stone being laid in 1613. The nave, in Rue Notre-Dame, dates from the 17th century, while the transept and the choir with the crypt were added from 1935. Since 1794 it has housed the miraculous statue of the Comforter of the Afflicted, the patron saint of Luxembourg and Luxembourg City. In 1879, Pope Pius IX designated it as a cathedral.
On 5 April 1985, a fire broke out in the bell tower of the cathedral during refurbishment works. The carillon bells, the tenor bell of the Virgin Mary and the bells of St Willibrord, St Peter and St Cunegunda were all literally consumed by the flames. The reconstruction work was completed in October 1985.