The Grote Kerk (The Big Church) in Dordrecht, until the Reformation known as Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (‘Church of Our Lady’), is one of the most impressive Gothic churches of the Netherlands.
It is built in the Brabantine Gothic style, which was not only appreciated in Brabant itself but in Holland as well. Of all churches in Holland, the church of Dordrecht is the only one in true Brabantine style, not in one of the local variants. It is the only big Gothic church in Holland with stone vaults. The choir is the most richly decorated part of the church, and is executed in a white-coloured natural stone. It is attributed to Everaert Spoorwater, an architect from the Southern Netherlands who contributed to many Gothic churches of that period, and who already in 1434 was commissioned to finish the nave and the transepts, construction of which had already begun some four decades earlier. The choir however probably replaced an earlier one which was destroyed by fire in 1457. It has five radiating chapels.
The nave and the transept are executed in brick, with only a minimal use of natural stone for decoration only. Each trave of the side-aisles is flanked by an undeep chapel. These are recognizable on the outside by their gables, which were reconstructed in 1930, using an old picture as an example. In comparison with the height and width of the church, the nave is remarkably small. Archaeologists discovered in 1929 that the church originally was intended to be twice as long. Also unfinished is the tower, work on which was started in 1439 and was probably stopped to prevent further leaning. It was designed by Antoon I Keldermans, who had intended it to be about twice as tall. The current top of the church, with its four clocks, dates from 1624 and incorporates the pillars that were already positioned here for the octagonal third segment.
The extension of the carillon in the church tower of The Grote Kerk forms a milestone in the history of European Carillon history. The Grote Kerk Carillon, eight heaviest in the world, contains 67 bells with a total weight of 52 tons of bronze.
A carillon is a musical instrument consisting of least two octaves of carillon bells arranged in chromatic series and played from a keyboard that permits control of expression through variation of touch. A carillon bell is a cast bronze cup-shaped bell whose partial tones are in such harmonious relationship to each other as to permit many such bells to be sounded together in varied chords with harmonious and concordant effect. Carillon bells are cast from bell bronze, an alloy composed of approximately 78 % copper and 22% tin, which is heated in a furnace to above 2,000 degrees F, until it melts and combines into a homogenous liquid. The molten metal is then poured into a mold made up of a core, which is the shape of the inside section of the bell, and a cope, which is the shape of the outside of the bell. A bell’s weight and profile, or shape, determine its note and the quality of its tone.
Bell ringing celebrates the joy of weddings and victories, intones the sadness of deaths and funerals, and summons people to church. The casual listener immediately recognizes that some bells play hymns, songs and melodies. Those bells are called carillons or chimes. They do not swing, and the striking of the clappers is controlled by one person, the carillonneur or chimer.
But the bells of the tower can also be rung in sequences as disciplined and orderly as the stones and timbers of the towers themselves. These bells, rung in an ancient yet very modern way, produce a rich cascade of sound.
Bell ringing requires no special “music”, just a few ordinary people who enjoy climbing towers, working as a team, and performing “The Exercise.” The human ingredient is critical because ringing the bells is very different from playing a carillon or chime. It is not a single person sitting at a keyboard. It depends on ringing real bells, each swung by pulling on the bell rope by a single person: six bells – six people, eight bells – eight people. Some of the heavier bells even need more then one person to ring the bell, the heaviest bell of the Grote Kerk needs even three persons to make him ring. And remember after the “Bim” comes also a “Bam” !
The tradition of bell ringing goes back a long way, but my wife Hélène said to me some years ago, everybody can start a tradition, let us start this one ! So that’s what our family likes to do on Eastern morning. We gather at 09.30 at the entrance of the Grote Kerk with a few other enthusiast and we start climbing the tower. We ring the bells for 15 minutes, it sounds a short time, but pulling on the heavy ropes makes it feel a lot longer.
It is a lot of fun, hard work and a lot of laughs but the reward is a good feeling afterwards. When the hard work was done we went home (we live just around the corner!) and we had well deserved champagne breakfast with our family.
The tradition of ringing the bells with our family, is a great success. We rang the bells this year (2007) for the 5th time and we keep on doing it in the future. Traditions play an important role in passing on our faith. The beliefs and customs related to an event or holiday establish a special family identity. The Easter season gives you a perfect opportunity to impart spirituality to your children. But you have to be intentional about it, or else the Easter bunny and baskets may overshadow what you are trying to teach. So make it fun, but also help your children understand the significance of family and social relationships. The opportunity to nurture your child’s spirit and the powerful sense of identity that traditions bring to children’s lives are well worth the work you put into developing your own special family traditions. So start your own tradtion now and reap the rewards.
Take a look at a few pictures of our family bell ringing.