Prague’s Loreto carillon reprogrammed to play Christmas melody

Loreto church

Prague’s famous Loreto church has a surprise in store for visitors. Its 27-bell Baroque carillon is being re-programmed to play a Christmas melody from Christmas Day till February 2. It is only the second time in over a century that the melody has been changed.  

The Loreto bells are a familiar sound to the inhabitants of Prague and millions of tourists who admire the church every year.

The carillon of 27 bells first sounded on the feast of St. Wenceslas in 1695. It was designed by Claude Fremy, an Amsterdam city bell ringer and cannon and the mechanism was assembled and connected to the clockwork by Prague watchmaker Petr Neumann. In addition to the automated playback, the carillon can also be played live using a keyboard. It has a range of two and a half octaves and is sometimes played on church holidays.

The last time the carillon played a carol was at the end of the 19th century, when the melodies in  the mechanism  changed regularly. It was designed so as to allow a change of melody fairly easily. The person in charge had to insert a new set of metal rails into the machine, on which the melody is "programmed" using pegs.

Marie Baštová, curator at the Loreto says that in the 18th century, songs alternated ten or twelve times a year, depending on the holidays and the changing seasons. It was unthinkable for the carillon to play the same tune for too long. She says that in some historical documents a Franciscan custodian complains that the same melody had been playing for over three months which he said was a disgrace.

Loreto church | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

However, over the years, the people in charge of the ingenious mechanism stopped changing the melodies frequently until eventually they lost the know-how needed to do so and the carillon played the same melody for a century.

The man who broke the spell is Radek Rejšek who has been in charge of the carillon since 1990. In addition to playing the carillon live, he was able to get the mechanism back on track, allowing it to play different melodies again. Last May – exactly one hundred years after the tune A Thousand Times We Greet Thee was last changed the carillon switched to the tune of Maria, Maria, Brighter Than the Sun.

The melody it will play this Christmas is a closely guarded secret.

But, word about the pending change is out, and there no doubt that many Prague inhabitants will head in that direction on their Christmas walk this year. It is to be hoped that now that the tradition of changing Loreto melodies has been re-established, Radek Rejšek will keep it up and raise a new generation of bell ringers who will keep it alive in the years to come.