Last updated on 20/04/2014
The Carillon of the Brussels Cathedral
The Cathedral in Brussels is in the spotlight for a special reason today. The carillon in four octaves hanging at the top deserves some attention in this Easter season. Why’s that? In Belgian Easter tradition, church bells fly off to Rome on a mission for sweets for the holiday. But before they left the country, BrusselsLife.be got the scoop on this carillon from the ground floor all the way up to the roof.
Carillons, an ensemble of bells, belong to Brussels patrimony. The largest one in the city is found at the top of the Saint Michael and Saint Gudula Cathedral. Forty-nine of the bells that make up this carillon are found in the south tower of the cathedral. Only one bell, Mister Salvator, is housed in the north tower, along with a family of falcons. At a hefty 7,000 kilos, it is probably better that he swings on his own.
The bells’ past
Joined by two civil carillons located in the Maison des Parlementaires and at Mont des Arts, the Cathedral is home to the only religious bell ensemble in Brussels. The French Revolution destroyed the first set in the cathedral, then after 150 years with no concert carillon, Brussels decided it had been long enough. The 50 bells that we hear in Saint Gudula today were then installed.
BrusselsLife visits the carillon
Legend tells us the bells are silent during this Easter period due to their voyage to Rome in search of chocolate eggs… We were welcomed up close and personal with the subject of this tradition. Up to the tip top of the Saint Michael and Gudule Cathedral we climbed. The mechanisms that utter pretty melodies over Brussels hang out 60 meters above ground...
The first step was actually three-hundred steps. The staircase narrow, the stone steps smooth and concave with ware. The climb wasn’t that bad, thanks to our pit stops to admire the different old utility rooms that hide behind ambiguous tall wooden doors in the staircase walls from time to time. Castle-like, almost.
We couldn’t skip the view from the balcony halfway up, even if it does make your knees shake… Nothing but a small space between you and the park down below.
The last 150 steps and whew, finally at the top. Our guide Thibaut Boudart, head manager of the carillon organization Tintimabulum, unlocked the door to reveal the bells.
Cords are tightly hung everywhere in the Cathedral’s roof, and the carillonneur has an enclosed space smack dab in the middle containing the instrument used to create the music. It does your ears a big favor to be closed in this room when the bells ring.
These bells ring out automatically every 15 minutes, and several times a year a carillonneur manually plays. Picture an instrument like a piano or an organ with longer wooden keys and a line of foot pedals. Given that the weight of bronze bells ranges from 14 to 3300 kilos, you need more than the force of an index finger. So this instrument is played with your entire fist.
Our visit was not over: one more flight of stairs. There we were on the Cathedral’s roof. The view from the top of the south tower is nothing but magnificent.
When they ring…
…it’s best to be in the park right in front of the Cathedral or by the transept on the south side. Besides the automatic ringing 4 times an hour, these bells sound on July 21st, the Walloon and Flemish communities’ celebrations (September 27 and November 11), All Saints’ Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. As the seasons change, so does the melody - four times a year.
Rendezvous in front of the cathedral from July to September at 2 pm on Sundays to enjoy concerts. The melodies depend on the musician, who is alternatively Flemish and Walloon. Sometimes a European hymn, sometimes a jazz ensemble, sometimes Greensleeves, always enjoyable!
A visit for you
If you are interested in more information about this side of Brussels culture, you’ll be happy to know private visits do take place. While Tintimabulum manages the carillon, it is the cathedral that organizes the visits. You will need to be a group of at least 10, and reservations are necessary. More details can be found on the Saints Michael and Gudula Cathedral website.