"I enjoy adapting the music to the occasion"

Interview with carillonneur Mathieu Polak

Every Wednesday around noon you can hear the carillon playing on the Woudestein campus. Carillonneur Mathieu Polak is performing during this time. He also plays the carillon on special occasions and chooses what he wants to play. In addition, Polak composes pieces himself, such as 'The Tinbergen Variations'.

The carillon is on the glass air bridge between the Erasmus Building and the Tinbergen Building. In a glass cubicle Mathieu stomps on the sticks, because that's what it looks like. Above him hang the imposing bells. When he plays, you can see from the roof how people passing by look up to see where the music is coming from.

Mathieu Daniël Polak is a carillonneur and composer and since 2008 the carillonneur of our university. He was educated at the Netherlands Carillon School in Amersfoort. He obtained his Master's degree in 2000, specialising in teaching amateurs. Since graduating, he has been a teacher at the Carillon Center of the Netherlands in Amersfoort. Mathieu won prizes for carillon playing at international carillon competitions in Hamburg and Enkhuizen. As a carillonneur he performed in Japan, Denmark, Germany, France, Belgium, Portugal, Lithuania and the United States. Polak obtained two Master Degrees in composition, at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven (2013) and at the Utrecht School of the Arts (2010). He is currently studying carillon composition at the Royal Carillon School Mechelen (Belgium). He has also won many prizes and grants for his compositions. Visit his website here.


Polak himself chooses what to play on campus, but he likes to take special occasions into account, such as visits from abroad. When in 2016 Ban Ki-Moon, at that time Secretary-General of the United Nations, visited the EUR, Korean music sounded from the carillon. Polak: "I don't know if he heard it, but I like to tune the music to the occasion."

On special days in the year, such as the Opening of the Academic Year and the Dies Natalis, there are festive concerts. In any case, student songs, such as Io Vivat and Gaudeamus Igitur, are a regular feature. "For the 106th anniversary of the Erasmus University, I composed 'The Tinbergen Variations' in 2019, commissioned by the University. The composition is dedicated to the economist and Nobel Prize winner Jan Tinbergen. The composition is based on the opening chords of the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach."

Dancing on a deserted campus

During corona time, it was quiet on campus, especially during the severe lockdown in the spring of 2021. Yet Polak was there for a short while, for a special project. He tells about it: "A handful of security guards and the carillonneur had access to the grounds. As an exception, a few students were allowed to spend a morning on the campus to make a film: 'This must be the Place'. In this project, led by Erik Vermunt, a cultural sciences/cultural economics student, special places on the campus are shown, the carillon sounds and there is dancing on a deserted campus. The film's message is 'we miss the places where we can come together'. The melody in the video is by the group Talking Heads.


A year later, it was not corona, but a brooding magpie that caused Polak to be unable to play the carillon for three months: "It was right under the bells, on the grating. I noticed that some tones were not clearly audible. That was because the branches of the nest were caught between the wires leading to the bells." Because magpies are protected, Mathieu had to wait until after breeding. At the beginning of July, the magpie had left and the tones of the carillon once again sounded across the campus.

Workshops and courses

In cooperation with Studium Generale, Polak offers students and employees the opportunity to get acquainted with the carillon. Throughout the year, workshops and one-off introductory carillon lessons take place. About twice a year the carillonneur gives the course 'carillon for beginners'. Students who are enthusiastic about this course can also follow his training to become a carillonneur. All workshops and courses are free of charge for students and employees of the university. The only condition is that you play the carillon on campus once in a while, if you are advanced enough.

Carillon Erasmus University
The 23 metres high tower was built in 1968. The carillon has 47 bells, the heaviest weighing about 265 kilos. In the United States of America many universities have a carillon on their campus, which was probably the inspiration for the former Netherlands School of Economics (Nederlandse Economische Hogeschool) to also have a carillon on the campus grounds. In 1963, the municipality donated a sum of money for the purchase of a carillon. On the air bridge, just below the carillon, is a tape deck. This automatic game was never used. The hammers near the bells indicate the original idea to install an automatic game as well. In the room under the air bridge, there is a practice keyboard, for the courses and workshops and, as the name suggests, for practising.

More information

Are you interested in following a workshop? Keep an eye on the agenda of Studium Generale, follow Erasmus Carillon on Facebook or contact the carillon (mathieu.polak@eur.nl). People who are interested are always welcome to come along to the bell tower on Wednesdays. It is best to report at the practice keyboard under the footbridge around 12.15 pm.

Do you have a request, for a Wednesday or for a special day? Please sent the carillon an e-mail, so that he can see if he can play something appropriate from his repertoire.

Tip: The carillon is loudest nearby, on the square between the buildings near the aula, but the music is at its best in the park. So why not settle down in Park Noord to listen to the carillon music there!

Erasmus Magazine has interviewed Polak about The Tinbergen Variations.

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