The Rotterdam municipal authorities gave Erasmus University its carillon in 1968, on the condition that the bells would be played every day. And before the renovation work began, they were. At noon on every Wednesday, the university’s carillonneur, Mathieu Polak, would play some music. On the four other weekdays, advanced students would be allowed to play the bells, as Polak teaches students who are interested in the carillon to play the practice keyboard downstairs, in a way that cannot be heard by passers-by.
Unfortunately, it has been a while since the bells last rang at Erasmus University. “I haven’t been at the university since August, after the lights started going out due to the work being carried out,” says Polak. Not that he’s sitting on his hands now that he can’t play the university’s carillon. “Musicians obviously have multiple gigs going on at any given time, and I play all over the world. But I do miss the university, and particularly my weekly contacts with my students. I’ve been told the renovation will be completed by the end of February, so hopefully I’ll be able to start teaching and playing again soon after that.”
Until that time he will be composing new music and adapting existing music, so that his pupils will have something new to play as soon as the renovation is over. “It will take us a while to get into it again, as the students won’t have played for quite a while. And we were on a roll with some new music. Thankfully, I have some really enthusiastic students with whom I’m still in touch, and there will always be people who are interested in learning to play this instrument,” says Polak.
Polak also composes and adapts music to mark special occasions. For instance, he played Prince songs when the musician died, and he played South Korean music when the former Secretary-General of the United Stations, Ban Ki-Moon, visited EUR in 2016. Polak admits that adapting music for the carillon is not always an easy thing to do. “Bells sound completely different from the instruments most people are used to. That’s where playing the carillon becomes an art – adapting the music in such a way that it’s still recognisable when played on a completely different instrument.” Fortunately, the music he plays is often recognised. “For example, I’ll get a thumbs-up from American students when I play the Marine’s Hymn, which is used by the US Marine Corps.”
Polak is currently adapting German music, such as works by Beethoven and Bach. However, as mentioned above, it seems likely that our lunch breaks won’t be enlivened by the results of his hard work until late February. “To be honest, I’m a bit over this break. If I have to, I’ll climb the tower while wearing asbestos protective clothing, as long as I get to access my bells,” says Polak.