Each weekday at half past noon, the sounds of bells resonate through the campus. The familiar chimes often heard in town squares across the Netherlands come from the university’s carillon, an instrument from the medieval ages.

The carillon consists of at least 23 bells played manually by striking batons and by kicking foot pedals. When a baton is struck, a metal string connected pulls on a particular bell above that emits a certain tone.

Perched atop the walkway that bridges the Erasmus building with the Tinbergen, the carillon is played daily by both students and the campus carillonneur, Mathieu Polak, who teaches the students how to play. On Thursday, each student took a turn performing a special repertoire of Greek music curated by Polak himself.

Through The Trapdoor

One of the most fascinating aspects of playing the campus carillon is the actual process of getting to it. By opening a trapdoor hidden in the ceiling, a steep ladder drops to the floor. One by one the performers climb up to the rooftop of the walkway.

Carillon trapdoor foto Laanen
The only way up to the carillon. Image credit: Ivar Laanen

The opportunity to learn how to play the carillon, which was given to the university by the city of Rotterdam in 1968, has attracted an eclectic band of international students from Moldova to the United States. The way Polak sees it, he’s giving this medieval instrument some rejuvenation.

“If you think of the story of the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, you immediately have a picture of what a carillon player would look like,” Polak told EM. “With all these enthusiastic students from all around the world, we’re changing the reputation of the carillon. It gives a good feeling to see people as young as 18 playing the carillon.”

Concert With A View

What makes playing the carillon different from most instruments, other than the fact that it requires all four limbs to play, is the way it feels to play in concert. Looking down on the campus below, the carilloneurs get both a view and the luxury of being hidden from the public.

“I used to take part in piano concerts, and I remember it being very scary to play in front of a crowd,” said Anastasia Cornovan, who studies Economics and Business. “But when you’re up there you feel more relaxed and less scared. I like the idea that everybody hears me but nobody sees me.”

The ringing of the bells at 12:30 was business-as-usual for students strolling to class, but for the practicing carillonneurs on the rooftop, the Greek concert was a chance to watch each other hit the batons while enjoying an unusually sunny day in March. And when the final student played a riveting composition of Zorba the Greek, even a few onlookers down below gave an applause. The next time you hear the sound of bells as you stroll from class to class, take a look at the carillon above. Chances are one of your fellow students is giving the modern campus that medieval Dutch feeling.