FOR THE LAST FIVE years or so I’ve been recording the contemporary sound tapestry of Paris in, as far as I know, a more comprehensive way than it’s been done before. During that time I’ve recorded both the ordinary and extraordinary sounds of this city in ordinary and extraordinary places.
Occasionally, I’ve been able to record history in the making and last Saturday was one such occasion. It was quite sobering to think that the event I was about to witness will never be seen again in the lifetime of anyone who was there.
Bells have rung out from the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris since the end of the 12th century, long before the building of the cathedral was completed. As the cathedral’s life evolved and its influence developed more bells were added to reflect its increasing importance.
By the middle of the 18th century Notre Dame had a magnificent array of bells – eight in the north tower, two bourdons, or great bells, in the south tower, seven in the spire and three clock bells in the north transept.
But their days were numbered. The ravages of the French Revolution took their toll and the bells were removed, broken up and melted down. One bell though escaped this destruction. The biggest of the cathedral’s bells, the great Emanuel bell, was saved and reinstalled on the express orders of Napoleon I and it still sits in the south tower today.
After the dust of the Revolution had settled new bells were installed in Notre Dame – four in the north tower, three in the spire and three in the roof of the transept. Unfortunately, the best that can be said about these new bells is that they were second rate. Poor quality metal was used to cast them and they were out of tune with each other and with the magnificent Emanuel bell. And these second rate bells are what Parisians have lived with, at least until last Saturday – and then everything changed.
To mark the 850th anniversary of the founding of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris it was decided to replace the existing cathedral bells with new ones, exact replicas of the bells that were in place before the Revolution. With eight new bells in the north tower cast at a foundry in Normandy and a new bourdon cast in the Netherlands sitting beside the frail and now very carefully used Emanuel in the south tower, once again the soundscape of 18th century Paris can be recreated and sounds that have been lost for over two centuries can again be heard.
In February, the new bells were delivered to Notre Dame and were blessed by Cardinal Vingt-Trois. They were then set out in the nave of the cathedral for the public to see and to touch. I saw and touched them all.
A Call for Silence:
I was there on the Parvis du Notre Dame or as it’s called today, Place Jean-Paul II, as the crowds gathered and the anticipation mounted.
The dignitaries arrived and proceedings got underway with three chimes from the great Emanuel bell which brought a gasp from the crowd. Singing by children from the Sacred Music Choir of Notre Dame was followed by an explanation of what was to happen next by a lady whose French was impeccable and whose English accent was far from perfect but nevertheless, an absolute delight to listen to. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris, recently returned from the Papal conclave in Rome, then gave a short address.
The Opening Ceremony:
The smallest of the new bells, Jean-Marie, in memory of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the 139th archbishop of Paris, from 1981 to 2005.
782kg – 997mm
When the Cardinal finished speaking there was an eerie silence and then the moment came – the very first ringing of the new bells of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, sounds that haven’t been heard for over two centuries.
The first ringing of the new bells:
Maurice, in memory of Maurice de Sully, the 72nd bishop of Paris, from 1160-1196, who launched the construction of the current cathedral in 1163.
1,011kg – 1,097mm
After that historic and quite breathtaking experience, which kept the crowd spell bound, it was the turn of the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, to speak which he did fluently and without notes.
Bertrand Delanoë :
Benoît-Joseph, in honour of Pope Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger was made Pope in 2005 and retired in 2013.
1,309kg – 1,207mm
Then came quite remarkable sounds from the bells, a conversation between the smallest bells and Gabriel, one of the largest.
A conversation between bells:
Étienne (Stephen), in honour of Saint Steven, the first Christian martyr. The church constructed (from 690 AD onwards) on the same site as the current Cathedral bore the name Étienne.
1,494kg – 1,267mm
Next to take to the podium was Aurélie Filippetti, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication.
Aurélie Filippetti :
Marcel, in honour of Saint Marcel, the ninth bishop of Paris, at the end of the 4th Century.
1,925kg – 1,393mm
Denis, in honour of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, c. 250 AD. He is the patron saint of the diocese.
2,502kg – 1,536mm
Over the centuries, the sounds of the bells of Notre Dame have told of the joys and sorrows of the Christian community and the major moments that have marked the history of France.
Anne-Geneviève; in honour of Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and in honour of Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris.
3,477kg – 1,725mm
Hearing the sounds of the new bells for the first time was a very special moment but more was to follow.
Introduced by Monseigneur Patrick Jaquin, recteur-archiprêtre de la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the climax of the ceremony was a magnificent grande solenelle, all ten bells ringing at once.
La Grande Solenelle:
Gabriel, in honour of Saint Gabriel, who announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. In the 15th Century, the largest of the North Tower’s bells already bore the name Gabriel.
4,162kg – 1,828mm
Bells have been associated with Christianity since its earliest times and, although they have marked the passage of time, their primary purpose has always been liturgical. Their chimes summon people to come together and call them to prayer.
It seems appropriate therefore that I should conclude with the sounds of the new bells at Notre Dame doing just that – calling people to the evening service in the cathedral just as they have done for hundreds of years.
And it was quite special to know that the sounds engulfing the Place Jean-Paul II and beyond were the same sounds heard over two centuries ago.
Call to Prayer:
Marie, in honour of the Virgin Mary and in memory of the first great bell of the Cathedral, which was cast in 1378.
6,023kg – 2,065mm