Prague’s Loreto gets new bell chime for first time in more than century

Radek Rejšek, photo: Jonáš Zbořil, Czech Radio

After more than a hundred years, the historical bell chime at Prague’s Loreto Church is getting a new melody. The song, a Baroque Hymn, will be played on the 27-bell carillon for the first time on Wednesday evening, at six o’clock.

Prague’s Loreto Church,  photo: Miloš Turek

Loreto is a Marian pilgrimage site not far from Prague Castle, with a Baroque Church of the Nativity and a replica of the Holy House surrounded by cloisters and chapels. It is best known for its Baroque carillon, which plays the same melody every hour from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Photo: Václav Müller,  Czech Radio
The bell chime, which was first heard on September 28, 1695, was a true rarity in Bohemia at the time of its creation. It is the oldest carillon of its kind in the Czech Republic and similar ones can only be found in a few other places in the world, including Amsterdam, Berlin, Delft and Bruges.

The Loreto carillon is connected to a complex clock mechanism, which has to be wound up every morning. It consists of a metal cylinder with pegs for setting various melodies. At the same time, the carillon can be controlled by means of a keyboard on which various compositions are played to this day on special occasions, such as church holidays.

Radek Rejšek has been in charge of the bell-chime since the Velvet Revolution: “I play the instrument using my whole arms, not just fingers, because that would be impossible. When the cylinder turns, the peg lifts a lever and the lever sounds the bells above us.”

For more than a century now, the Loreto carillon played the same melody, an old Marian song, says Marie Baštová, curator of collections at the Loreto.

"It is a melody called ‘A Thousand Times We Greet Thee’, which is an old Marian song. We believe it hasn’t been changed in at least 100 years.

Photo: Václav Müller,  Czech Radio
“But it hasn’t always been like that. We actually found a historical document where a Franciscan custodian complains that the same melody has been playing for over three months and that this is a disgrace.”

So how come the tune hasn’t been changed for such a long time, even though the carillon was designed to play various melodies? Mrs Baštová offers her own explanation:

"I guess that the people who knew how to change the tunes and who were brave enough to do it are all gone now, and the tradition has gradually died out. So by doing this, we are trying to bring it back to life.”

After more than a century, the old song will be finally replaced with a new one, a Baroque Hymn called Maria Maria. To make it possible, Radek Rejšek had to disassemble the machine and rearrange the pegs in a different position. The new song of the Loreto carillon can be heard for the first time on Wednesday evening at six o’clock.