Music makes people

The resounding architecture of Maastricht

16 March 2023

In no Dutch city does music resound like in Maastricht, where Limburg’s music culture merges in its many forms, from the rich club scene to the opera, from swaying carnival crowds to waltzes on Vrijthof square, from popular theatre to religious liturgy.

Music infuses the city, its streets, and its edifices. Architecture takes centre stage, from its masterpieces such as the carillon, church organs, old theatres, and modern music venues, to the invisible traces that notes have left behind in the city’s rich and varied urban tapestry.

Maastricht pours forth with sounds and tunes, and those who play, and those who make, and those who love the music. Indulge yourself and enjoy the sights on this walk, made for the show Frozen Music at Bureau Europa.

Distance: 2 km | Walking time: 1 hour

There are many musical musings to make in the city: after the walk is done, be sure to take your bike for a small tour around the city. Every bonus location is indicated on the map with a little star. More information follows below.

1. We begin at Bureau Europa, platform for architecture and design. Together with this museum of the designed environment, the neighbouring Muziekgieterij music venue was one of the first cultural institutions in the Sphinxkwartier. But did you know there were former plans for a musical addition to this recently developed part of Maastricht?

2. Descend along the lawn down to the Bassin. Continue past Bureau Europa’s entrance and ascend the stairs around the corner to Richie Backfireplein. On 19 March 2021, rock drummer Cesar Zuiderwijk christened the garden square behind the Timmerfabriek ‘Richie Backfireplein’, a tribute to drummer Richard Bruinen of Maastricht’s world-renowned hardcore band Backfire!, who took his life at a young age. The name is apt for the square where you enter the Muziekgieterij venue. Jan Sluijsmans and Wim Smeets founded Muziekgieterij in 2004, driven by Maastricht’s lack of good popular music gigs. It began operating out of a building guardianship at the old local television channel L1 headquarters on Bankastraat and moved to the Timmerfabriek in 2013. In 2017–18, the complex (which includes Bureau Europa) was overhauled by Maurer United Architects, vastly improving its concert facilities. This major project received an honourable mention in the Architectuur in Nederland Jaarboek 2019/2020. The venue, which also organises the Bruis music festival, plays a central role in Maastricht’s cultural scene.


3. Return to the lawn. At the traffic lights, looking straight over the Bassinbrug offers an excellent view of the Landbouwbelang building. In the early 2000s, the Belvédère Plan aimed to expand Maastricht towards the Belgian border, and the Sphinxkwartier was intended as an ‘over-the-top’ cultural cluster. Not without reason, scornful headlines read ‘Las Vegas on the Maas’. Mega gambling concern Harrah’s planned a huge egg-shaped casino, ruthlessly filling in the Bassin and demolishing the Eiffel building. Though Mayor Leers was a keen advocate, it was unrealised. Nor was entertainment mogul Joop van den Ende’s theatre on the site of the Landbouwbelang, connected by a slender pedestrian bridge to a relocated MECC convention centre to be built across the river Meuse just beyond the Griendpark. Architect Jo Coenen also designed a ship-shaped Theater aan de Maas for this location. Another interested party was violinist and conductor André Rieu, who wanted to turn the Timmerfabriek into his own concert hall. Concerns about Maastricht’s Disneyfication mostly derailed these cultural plans, not to mention the enormous costs that became untenable during the 2007–09 Great Recession.

4. Walk down Boschstraat to Markt. At the end of the street on the left is St. Matthias Church. Look inside and admire its special organ. Since the Middle Ages, organs have played a central role in churches. Because it is usually the largest interior object, its design lies with the architect or carpenters and not with the instrument’s builder. This medieval design remained prevalent for centuries. Dating from 1808, the church organ in ‘de Mathijs’ was made by Maastricht’s most famous organ builder, French-born Joseph Binvignat. He came to Maastricht around 1775 and became a pupil of Lambert Houtappel, whose sister Maria Elisabeth he later married. In 1787, Binvignat gained Maastricht citizenship. He was the first in the Netherlands to build a three-manual organ (i.e., with three keyboards) that remains in this building. It was an important commission for the organ builder who had little work during the French era (1794–1814) because many monasteries and churches were dismantled. Hence, he also earned a living selling gin.

5. Take a look at the house neighbouring St. Matthias Church. This is the birthplace of Fons Olterdissen, known for his operettas and the Maastricht anthem. We’ll hear more about him later. Now walk further to the town hall on Markt. No instrument is as Dutch as the carillon. It also reverberates across Maastricht. Pieter Post’s town hall was completed in 1664 but without the tower. Yet it housed a beiaard, or carillon, from as early as 1668 (‘beieren’ is archaic Dutch for ‘to make noise’; the word carillon comes from the Old French ‘carignon/carregon’, meaning ‘four bells’: indeed, the first carillons consisted of four bells, as many in the UK still do, illustrated famously by the four-bell tune played by Big Ben, the so-called Westminster Quarters). Contrary to what the etymology of the name suggests, the carillon became an instrument for pleasant folk music. The town hall carillon is Maastricht’s oldest instrument still in use, despite not being intended for this location. When the renowned bellfounder Pieter Hemony couldn’t read his recently deceased brother François’ notes, a carillon for the Belgian city of Diest ended up in Hulst in Zeeland. The people in Hulst didn’t know what to do with it, but Maastricht was only too happy to acquire it from them. Since then, this carillon has become one of the city’s landmark sounds. In the past, its music not only reflected the zeitgeist – introducing people to prevailing music fashions they otherwise wouldn’t hear – but also the political climate. Thus, during the French occupation, the carillonneur could only play pro-French music. Maastricht’s current carillonneur, Frank Steijns, sees it as his mission to make the carillon popular again. For him, nothing is better than passers-by stopping and listening to its heavenly chimes.

6. From Markt, walk along Spilstraat. Above the windows at number 4 is a memorial plaque to composer Joseph Hollman, who was born here in 1852 and was a sensation in 19th-century Paris. At the end of the street, turn right and walk to Vrijthof, where, on the north side, is Theater aan het Vrijthof. This is where Lower Lotharingia’s ducal palace and a medieval nunnery successively stood. Today the General’s House (Generaalshuis) is home to the Theater aan het Vrijthof. In 1805, tobacco merchant Petrus de Ceuleneer built this neoclassical-style city mansion. The building’s name, however, refers to General Dibbets, a later resident, who succeeded in keeping Maastricht in Dutch hands during the 1830 Belgian Revolt. After being a museum, archive, library, and police station, the restoration and addition of a large hall by Arno Meijs in 1985–89 made way for a theatre that opened in 1992. The hall has a fan-shaped design that is narrowest near the stage, with a sloping auditorium that widens towards the rear and balcony. The theatre was refurbished on its 25th anniversary, innovatively revamping the acoustics with technical infrastructure and new seats, which significantly improves the listening experience. Whereas the actors used to be barely audible from the balcony, today these might just be the best seats in the house!

7.Theater aan het Vrijthof has much to offer, such as the classic Edmond Hustinx Hall, with its Empire stucco work, rarely found in Maastricht. Yet you can see this elsewhere on Vrijthof if you walk to Restaurant Momus. Sociëteit Momus was founded on 2 December 1840 when, after nine years of martial law during the Belgian Revolt, carnival could finally be celebrated again. Momus, named after the Greek god of mockery and satire, was the Netherlands’ first carnival association. In 1883, they moved into their association building, by Liègeois architect Julien Rémont, on the east side of Vrijthof. Apart from poor relief, the association was involved in organising Shrove Tuesday (Vastenavond). Many carnival traditions still celebrated in Maastricht originated in the Momus era, such as the Boonte Störrem carnival parades that began in 1840, the Momus cannon that has heralded Carnival Sunday since 1841, and all the confetti and serpentines that have annually coloured the city since 1891. Vastelaovend (Limburgish for carnival) and Maastricht go hand in hand, and music is the connecting factor. In Maastricht, drinking marching bands called Zate Hermeniekes march along with the crowds, where the ‘harmony’ is more between the musicians and more about enjoying yourselves than it is about making good or in-tune music. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a skilled musician or can’t play a note at all. On Carnival Tuesday, a jury judges the orchestras for the Zate Hermeniekes competition. Every participating band receives a fixed score of 111 points, praise from the jury, and a leek as a trophy.

8. Opposite the square’s secular east side is the spiritual west side with its famous twin churches. Walk to the Romanesque Basilica of Saint Servatius (on the right). If you want to have a look inside, enter it on Keizer Karelplein. Saint Servatius has had two organs. First, there was the 15th-century organ of the Van Elen organ-builders family from Maastricht. After this organ was removed, Joseph Binvignat began relocating the Dominican Church’s organ to Saint Servatius in 1804. In 1989, Verschueren organ builders from Ittervoort started a three-year total reconstruction of this organ. Music is very important to the Basilica of Saint Servatius. Though its carillon is larger than that of the town hall, it is much quieter. Noise pollution measures limit the decibels of the chimes, which can only ring at set times of the day – except for when the bells call churchgoers to Mass. About ten times a year, a special sound emanates from the basilica. The Bellringer’s Guild rings Grameer, the largest bell in the church. Its name derives from the French grand-mère. This ‘grandmother’ of the bells once hung in a specially built central tower (Pierre Cuypers, 1887–90) in the westwork, in between the two towers that still exist. In 1955, a large fire destroyed this central tower, which was never rebuilt. In 1983, a new Grameer, made by the Eijsbouts Brothers from Asten, replaced the old one and now hangs in one of the remaining towers. The original bronze bell was cast on 21 June 1515 by Willem and Jaspar Moer from ‘s-Hertogenbosch and can still be admired in the basilica’s courtyard. But what role can ringing heritage still play if the ringing can no longer be heard?

9. Cross Vrijthof and walk down Bredestraat. Continue as the street narrows, and on the left, just before Onze-Lieve-Vrouweplein, is the Bonbonnière. This old city theatre has a traditional music hall shape, with a painted convex ceiling, round balconies with ornamental stucco, and lots of red plush. Originally a spartan Jesuit church, city architect Matthias Soiron converted it into a theatre in 1788–89. A century earlier, the French occupiers had brought theatre to Maastricht, installing a wooden ‘barrack theatre’ (1673–78) on Markt, especially for its officers. Later, an old skittle alley in Lenculenstraat and an extremely fire-hazardous riding school on the corner of Calvariestraat and Jekerstraat served as theatres. The Bonbonnière, which acquired the latter theatre’s interior, functioned until 1992. Over the years, many big names visited this theatre, from Napoleon Bonaparte to American soldier darlings Fred Astaire and Marlene Dietrich. A famous event was the 1907 premiere of Kaptein van Köppenick by Fons Olterdissen. Local dialect opera thus became the Bonbonnière’s passion and remains a cherished memory for many Maastricht people. Despite a significant modernisation of the theatre by Frans Dingemans in 1955, for which painter Charles Eyck painted the ceiling, the Bonbonnière currently has no dedicated theatre programme. The building recently received negative press for its disrepair and crumbling Rococo stucco. In December 2022, the municipality announced its intention to address Bonbonnière’s future with its current operator, Heineken.

10. From the Bonbonnière, it is only a stone’s throw to our next destination. On the other side of Onze-Lieve-Vrouweplein, enter the eponymous Basilica of Our Lady. The Romanesque vaults of this 11th-century building have been steeped in music for 750 years, from Henricus van Aken, who became organist in 1282, to Hans Leenders and Sjef Streukens, who play the basilica’s Séverin organ in 2023. A peculiarity of Maastricht is the ‘Brabant-Liège condominium’, a period of shared sovereignty from 1204 to 1794. Whereas the chapter of Saint Servatius commissioned its organ builders from Brabant, the Basilica of Our Lady turned to Liège. The Liégois Andries Severijn (mind you, he was born in Maastricht!) built the organ in 1651–52. Severijn became so famous for his Walloon baroque organs, merging French and German stylistic elements, that he is even buried under one of his ornately carved instruments in St James’s Church in Liège. The Basilica of Our Lady’s organ was later expanded, but the French had it removed in 1804. The entire church was emptied, and the contents moved to the now-demolished Saint Nicholas Church – which was right next door back when Maastricht still had two sets of twin churches. Joseph Binvignat also repaired this organ in the 1830s, expanding and returning it to its original spot in the Basilica of Our Lady in 1838, when it was decided to demolish the smaller Saint Nicholas Church. Since its restoration in the 1980s, the organ again resonates through the basilica just as Severijn intended 350 years ago.

11. It’s time for our final stop in the Jekerkwartier. Exit Onze-Lieve-Vrouweplein and walk down Koestraat. At the end, walk through the building of Bischopsmolengang (Bishops Mill Passage), and on the other side you come to the mill’s water wheel. Then turn right along the Oude Minderbroederskerk (now the Limburg Historical Centre). Turn left onto Sint Pieterstraat. Ahead on the right is Lang Grachtje, where you walk alongside the medieval city wall. At the end, turn left and walk down the Grote Looiersstraat until you reach the monument to Fons Olterdissen. This group of statues by Willem Hofhuizen (1962) depicts the storyteller Olterdissen with a group of listening children as he looks out onto a scene from Trijn de Begijn. This 1910 comic opera, with libretto by Fons Olterdissen and music by his brother Guus, is the source of the official Maastricht anthem ‘Jao, diech höbs us aon ’t hart gelege’ (‘Yes, you have always been in our hearts’). Olterdissen, who did not learn the Maastricht dialect at home but on the street, had promoted tourism in the city with the Maastricht Vooruit association since the 1890s. He gained fame as a designer and director of historical parades, such as the Saint Servatius Play (Sint-Servaasspel) performed by 600 people on Vrijthof and a legendary historical procession in 1905. (A plaster statue of industrialist Petrus Regout from this procession was later placed in the Director’s Villa, now Bureau Europa, on the Bassin.) There is more music to experience in the Jekerkwartier besides this sculpted homage to Maastricht’s most famous chronicler. This ‘Latin Quarter’ of Maastricht also celebrates French culture. Not only will you regularly come across a summertime game of petanque in Grote Looiersstraat, but the Jekerkwartier was, for a long time, the stage for Bastille Day celebrations full of French chansons and joie de vivre. The JekerKlassiek and JekerJazz festivals offer yet more musical experiences. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Maastricht Conservatory in Piet Dingemans’ brutalist building from 1961 is also in the Jekerkwartier.

Our walk ends here. The Jekerkwartier is a good departure point for more Maastricht musical musings. Did you know composer Jean Lambrechts lives on Looiersgracht and composer Andrée Bonhomme was born at Alexander Battalaan 1? And that this street is named after the world-famous cellist from Maastricht? The city’s most famous music star is, of course, André Rieu. He grew up in nearby Begijnenstraat but now lives in the 16th-century Huis de Torentjes near the river Meuse in Sint Pieter. But there is more. Why not cycle to see the many former churches that are now music venues. The Augustinian Church (Kesselskade 43) is where the famous men’s choir of Mastreechter Staar rehearses during the day and where you can party at night. The Lutheran Church (Hondstraat 14) is a cultural venue brimming with performances. St. Theresa’s Church (Theresiaplein 8) has recently become home to the South Netherlands Philharmonic, and Opera Zuid is in Our Lady of Good Counsel (Malpertuisplein 60). Music emanates from beyond Maastricht, too. The provincial anthem boasts the song of the nightingale and lark and the tooting of the shepherds’ horns to sing the praises of Limburg’s much-loved land.

Text Remco Beckers | Design Dennis van Eikenhorst | Translation JLC Coburn | Images André | Lia Baggel | Maastricht Conservatory | F. Dennissen | | Marcel van Hoorn | JCAU | | Royal Dutch Glockenspiel Association | La Bonbonnière | Maurer United Architects | Mestreechter Steerke | Peter Stallinga | Frank Steijns | Theater aan het Vrijthof