WRITING ABOUT PARIS IN his novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, also known as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published in 1831, Victor Hugo said:
“And if you wish to receive of the ancient city an impression with which the modern one can no longer furnish you, climb – on the morning of some grand festival, beneath the rising sun of Easter or of Pentecost – climb upon some elevated point, whence you command the entire capital; and be present at the wakening of the chimes.”
“… Ordinarily, the noise which escapes from Paris by day is the city speaking; by night, it is the city breathing; in this case, it is the city singing.”
Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, one of Hugo’s grand festivals, I took his advice and climbed upon some elevated point and was present at the wakening of the chimes.
To listen to the city singing, I climbed to an elegant apartment on the fourth floor of a very old building on the Île de la Cité in the heart of medieval Paris and while my elevated point did not command the entire capital as Hugo suggested it should, it did nevertheless command a stunning view of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
From this exclusive vantage point I was able to listen to and to capture the pealing bells of Notre-Dame while being shielded from many of the other sounds that usually surround the cathedral.
Any Sunday morning in Paris will echo to the sound of church bells but the sound of the bells of Notre-Dame are different. Not only do they represent the contemporary soundscape, they also reflect something unique: a genuine soundscape pre-dating the French Revolution.
Les cloches de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris:
Bells have rung out from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris since the end of the twelfth 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 eighteenth 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 cathedrals’ bells, the great Emanuel bell, was saved and reinstalled on the express orders of Napoleon I and it still hangs in the south tower today.
After the dust of the Revolution 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 lived with from just after the Revolution until 2013, when 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 eighteenth century Paris, lost for over two centuries, could be heard.
Every time I hear the bells of the cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris I pause and remember that I am listening to a very rare thing: a genuine eighteenth century soundscape or, as Victor Hugo would have it, “ … this symphony which produces the noise of a tempest.”
I SPEND QUITE A LOT of time in churches, especially Parisian churches.
I am interested in church architecture, I’m fascinated by the history of individual churches and I enjoy exploring the sounds of churches. One strand of my Paris Soundscapes Archive is dedicated to the sounds of Parisian churches. I have a particular interest in the work of the master organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and the organs he built for Parisian churches and while I’ve made many recordings of these Cavaillé-Coll organs I also record the ambient sounds in churches, especially when they’re empty. In my experience, there are no silent churches in Paris: even without services taking place, without the organ playing and with no people, there are still sounds. It’s as though the very fabric of each church speaks to the attentive listener.
Apart from weddings and funerals (more of the latter than the former these days unfortunately) I seldom go to churches other than to explore their architecture, history and sounds. Imagine my surprise then when, thanks to a confluence of interests, I found myself, despite not being of the Roman Catholic persuasion, attending a Roman Catholic mass yesterday morning.
The twin-spired Église Saint Jean-Baptiste de Belleville has been on my Parisian church exploration ‘to-do’ list for some time. It was built between 1854 and 1859 in the neogothic style by the architect Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus, an expert in the restoration and recreation of medieval architecture, and it replaces a chapel built in 1543 and the first Saint-Jean-Baptiste church dating from 1635.
Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville was one of the first churches in Paris to be built in the neogothic style, which in itself was a good enough reason to visit it, but the fact that it also has a two-keyboard Cavaillé-Coll organ dating from 1863 was an added attraction.
One of the things I knew about the church was that Edith Piaf, the French cabaret singer, songwriter and actress, was baptised here on the 15th December 1917.
It was this confluence of interests: the neogothic l’église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville, a Cavaillé-Coll organ, my enthusiasm for Edith Piaf, in my view one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, together with the sound-rich environment of Belleville that brought me to this place yesterday morning where, to commemorate the 54th anniversary of her death, a Messe à la memoire d’Edith Piaf took place in the church supported by Les Amis d’Edith Piaf.
During the Mass the organ played and, of course, I had to record it for my archive. From my recording I’ve produced the following sound piece of some of the music played, which illustrates some of the voices and textures of the Cavaillé-Coll organ and gives a flavour of the Mass itself.
The Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville:
The piece opens with the full-throated Entrée. The tone changes for the next piece, the music for the Offertoire. Then comes the music for the Communion, an improvisation on “Non, je ne regrette rien”, a French song originally composed by Charles Dumont, with lyrics by Michel Vaucaire, always associated with Edith Piaf’s 1959 recording of it. The Sortie comprises a short organ piece followed by the lady herself singing “Hymne à l’amour” for which she wrote the words and Marguerite Monnot the music.
The organ was played by Laurent Jochum, organiste titulaire des grandes orgues Cavaillé-Coll de l’église Saint-Jean Baptiste de Belleville et de l’orgue de la Chapelle du collège et lycée Saint-Louis de Gonzague à Paris.
I am old enough to remember listening to Edith Piaf on the radio and I can remember her funeral bringing Paris to a standstill being headline news. For some of her short life she lived just round the corner from where I live now.
Sitting in the church yesterday morning next to the font where she was baptised and with her voice echoing around the church, it seemed ironic that, because of her lifestyle, the Catholic Church denied her a funeral mass when she died – they branded her ‘a categorical sinner’. Instead, her coffin was carried through the streets of Paris to be buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery with only a token blessing.
It was only on 10th October 2013, fifty years after her death, that the Roman Catholic Church gave her a memorial Mass in l’église Saint Jean-Baptiste in the parish in which she was born.
I don’t propose to document the life of Edith Piaf here; a quick search of Edith Piaf on Google will tell you much of what you need to know about her.
What I can say is that it is said she was born on the steps of N° 72 rue de Belleville on 19th December 1915. Her birth was registered at the Hôpital Tenon, next to what is now Place Edith Piaf in the 20th arrondissement, under the name Edith Giovanna Gassion.
In 2013, a statue of Edith Piaf, known as l’Hommage à Piaf, created by the French sculptor, Lisbeth Delisle, was inaugurated in the Place Edith Piaf.
Following yesterday’s Mass in Belleville I went to Place Edith Piaf to take in the atmosphere. I found a street market in full swing with some sounds that Edith herself might have been familiar with.
Sounds in Place Edith Piaf:
I couldn’t possibly end my own hommage to Edith Piaf yesterday without visiting her grave in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise.
She died on 10th October 1963 at the age of 47. Denied a funeral mass by the Catholic Church, some 10,000 people came to the cemetery to witness the interment of La Môme Piaf (‘The Little Sparrow’).
Edith Piaf was interred in the same grave as her father, Louis-Alphonse Gassion, and Theophanis Lamboukas, (Théo Sarapo), whom she married in 1962. She is buried next to her daughter, Marcelle, who died of meningitis at the age of two.
Of the 70,000 graves in the Cimetière Père Lachaise, Edith Piaf’s remains one of the most visited.
From the sounds of the Cavaillé-Coll organ in l’église Saint Jean-Baptiste and the bustling sounds of the street market in Place Edith Piaf, I couldn’t leave the cemetery without recording the sounds of the relative stillness surrounding Edith Piaf’s grave.
Like the fabric of an empty church, cemeteries speak to the attentive listener.
The sounds around Edith Piaf’s grave:
“Every damn thing you do in this life, you have to pay for.”
“Je ne me repends pas de m’être livrée à l’amour.”
(“I do not repent having given myself up to love.”)
Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux
IF YOU’VE READ Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables you will have read Hugo’s fictional account of the June Rebellion or the Paris Uprising of 1832, the last outbreak of violence linked with the July Revolution of 1830.
Général Jean Maximilien Lamarque had been a French commander during the Napoleonic Wars and had served with distinction in many of Napoleon’s campaigns. But following the July Revolution of 1830 he had become a leading critic of the new constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo views Lamarque as the government’s champion of the poor. He says that Lamarque was “loved by the people because he accepted the chances the future offered, loved by the mob because he served the emperor well”. Hugo portrays Lamarque as an emblem of French pride and honour.
In 1832, a cholera epidemic spread across France and Lamarque fell victim to it. He died on 1st June. Because of his status as a Republican and Napoleonic war hero, his death provided the spark that led the revolutionaries to take to their barricades.
On the 5th and 6th June 1832, Paris saw two bloody days of rioting with the Société des amis du peuple, la Société des droits de l’homme, students, craftsmen and labourers playing a principal part. But as early as the evening of 5th the Army and the National Guard had begun to suppress the uprising. By the following day fierce fighting centered on the last remaining pocket of resistance in the Rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri beside the Église Saint-Merri, but this too was finally suppressed.
Over the two days of the uprising some 800 people were killed or wounded.
Rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri
The rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri dates from the 12th century. It was originally called Rue de la Porte Saint-Merri, because it was next to l’Arche Saint-Merri, a 10th century gate through the second wall to encircle Paris.
By the 14th century, the street had become one of many streets in Paris noted for its prostitutes; at least it was until the parish priests of Saint-Merri demanded, not altogether successfully, that they be expelled.
Today, rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri runs for 132 metres from rue du Renard to rue Saint-Martin. For much of its length it runs alongside the northern side of the Église Saint-Merri.
At its junction with rue Saint-Martin, the rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri ends with a small square noted for its ever-changing street art.
It was around this small square that some of the bloodiest fighting of the Paris uprising took place, and it was here that I chose to sit on a bench partly to reflect on the events of 1832 and partly to absorb the elaborate 16th century gothic architecture of the Église Saint-Merri standing next to me.
For someone wired up like me it’s impossible not to contemplate history without conjuring up images of the sounds associated with that history. What would this place have sounded like I wondered in June 1832, or when the Église Saint-Merri was in its Middle-Ages pomp, or even when rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri was a 14th century rue aux ribaudes?
Unfortunately, from my Parisian green bench my imagined historical sounds were overwhelmed by the contemporary sounds around me – 16th century stonemasons replaced by 21st century Chinese building contractors.
Sounds around l’ Église Saint-Merri:
If you make it to the end of this sound piece you will discover that at least a flicker of the Parisian revolutionary spirit still survives: a lone voice of protest is heard as the whining of the weapon of mass construction reappears.
Although the Église Saint-Merri we see today dates from the mid-16th century, its roots go much further back.
Tradition has it that Medericus, abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Martin d’Autun, came to live as a hermit in a hut near the Saint-Pierre-des-Bois oratory which stood on the site of the present church. He is said to have died in August 700 and was buried there. He was later canonised and renamed Saint-Médéric.
In 884, Goslin, the bishop of Paris, had Médéric’s remains exhumed and laid to rest in the Saint-Pierre-des-Bois oratory, which now became the Saint-Médéric chapel. It was at this time that Saint-Médéric became the patron saint of the Right Bank.
Over time, the name Médéric was contracted to Merri, which is why the Église Saint-Merri and the rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri are so named.
Today, the remains of Saint-Médéric still rest in the crypt of the church.
In the early 10th century, a new church, Saint-Pierre-Saint-Merri, was built at the instigation of Eudes Le Fauconnier. Styled as a ‘Royal Officer’, it is possible that this was the same Eudes Le Fauconnier who took part in the defence Paris during the Viking siege in 885-86.
During the rebuilding of the church in the sixteenth century, the skeleton of a warrior was discovered together with boots of gilded leather and the inscription:
“Hic jacet vir bonæ memoriæ Odo Falconarius fundator hujus ecclesiæ”.
Which, based upon my schoolboy Latin, means something like:
“Here lies Eudes Le Fauconnier, of fond memory, founder of this church”.
The present day Église Saint-Merri was built between 1515 and 1612. The crypt, the nave and the aisles date from 1515-1520, the transept crossing from 1526-1530 and the choir and the apse were completed in 1552.
Some restoration work was carried out in the 18th century; some of the broken arches were repaired, the floor was covered with marble and the stained-glass windows were partly replaced by white glass.
During the French Revolution the church was closed for worship and was used to make saltpetre, one of the constituents of gunpowder. From 1797 to 1801, Theophilanthropists made it a “Temple of Commerce”. Theophilanthropists were a deistic society established in Paris during the period of the Directory aiming to institute in place of Christianity, which had been officially abolished, a new religion affirming belief in the existence of God, in the immortality of the soul, and in virtue.
The church was returned to the Catholic worship in 1803.
Sounds inside the Église Saint-Merri:
The northern aspect of the Église Saint-Merri and the bell tower
Image par Mbzt — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13660170
The bell-tower was built with three floors in 1612 but, following a fire in 1871, it was reduced to two floors. This bell tower houses the oldest bell in Paris dating from 1331.
The Choir Organ
The Église Saint-Merri has two organs, a choir organ and a grand orgue de tribune.
The grand orgue de tribune
François de Heman built the tribune organ with its five turrets between 1647 and 1650 and the master carpenter Germain Pilon crafted the turret buffet in 1647.
The instrument was enlarged by François-Henri Clicquot in 1779, and then rebuilt from 1855 to 1857 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Further work was carried out in 1947 by Victor Gonzalez.
Camille Saint-Saëns was the organist at the Église Saint-Merri from 1853 to1857.
My exploration of the sounds in and around the Église Saint-Merri took me from Medericus, a hermit living in a hut and subsequently canonised, to Eudes Le Fauconnier and the 9th century Viking siege of Paris, to the craftsmen of the 16th and 17th century, to the oldest bell in Paris, to a church used for making gunpowder and the bloody events of the Paris Uprising of 1832. And let’s not forget the medieval Parisian street with its ‘ladies of the night’ and the modern day Chinese builders.
Which goes to show that following contemporary sounds can lead in many different directions.
USUALLY REFERRED TO simply as ‘Trinité’, the Église de la Sainte-Trinité, a Roman Catholic church in Paris’ 9th arrondissement, was built during the Second Empire as part of Baron Eugène Haussmann’s modernisation of nineteenth century Paris.
Église de la Sainte-Trinité from Rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin
Designed by the French architect Théodore Ballu, construction of the Church began in 1861 and was completed in 1867.
The church’s façade was inspired by the Italian Renaissance although the bell tower and dome bear distinctive marks of the French Renaissance.
At the four corners on top of the façade, the four cardinal virtues are depicted: Justice, Temperance, Prudence and Fortitude. Crowning the bell tower are the four evangelists accompanied by their symbols: Saint John (the eagle), Saint Matthew (the angel), Saint Mark (the lion) and Saint Luke (the ox).
Further down, the number three is a recurrent theme: three triple-basined fountains (temporarily out of action due to construction work), surmounted by three statues sculpted by Eugène-Louis Lequesne embodying the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity.
The Église de la Sainte-Trinité is a big church. At 90 metres long and 34 metres wide, with the tip of the dome standing 63 metres high, the sense of size is enhanced inside the church where the roof of the chancel rises to some 30 metres.
Trinité boasts two Cavaillé-Coll organs. The smaller of the two, the Orgue de Choeur or chancel organ, is a two manual (plus pedals), fifteen rank, fifteen stop mechanical key and stop organ.
The Orgue de Choeur
The larger organ, the Orgue de Tribune or gallery organ, was built between 1868 and 1869. It is a three manual (plus pedals), eighty-two rank, sixty-stop organ, which today has an electric key and stop action.
The Orgue de Tribune
The large, gallery organ has been renovated extensively and expanded over the decades.
The original organ was badly damaged during the Paris Commune of 1871 after which Cavaillé-Coll had to reconstruct it.
In 1901, the organ builder Joseph Merklin carried out some restoration work and made some tonal changes.
In 1930, perhaps the church’s most celebrated organist, Olivier Messiaen, was appointed. He would hold the post of titular organist for 61 years from 1930 to 1992. Early in his tenure, a second restoration was carried out by the organ-building firm Pleyel-Cavaillé-Coll. On completion of this work the organ was re-inaugurated with a recital by Marcel Dupré and his former student, Olivier Messiaen.
From 1962 to 1967, the organ builders, Beuchet-Debierre, carried out a third restoration.
Towards the end of his tenure as titular organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinite, Olivier Messiaen had this to say about the magnificent gallery organ:
“As it stands now, the St. Trinité instrument is a masterpiece. The original stops by Cavaillé-Coll have been preserved and I have personally insisted on the fact that these stops should retain their wonderful original voice. The various stops added during the restoration works considerably enrich the instrument with mixtures (pleins jeux, nasards, tierces) and a complete battery of reeds. The electrification and the addition of general combinations result in faster response and more frequent and more varied changes of colours. Nevertheless, the most beautiful voices remain those of Cavaillé-Coll: the montres, the flutes, the very powerful reeds, the extraordinary Basson 16′ and the wonderful Quintaton 16′ on the Positif: they were all designed and built by Cavaillé-Coll … I have never heard, anywhere in the world, a sound of such quality.”
Despite the twentieth century modifications to the gallery organ, it is easy to imagine its late nineteenth century voice echoing through Sainte-Trinité at the funerals of Hector Berlioz and Georges Bizet, both of which took place in this church.
Sadly, on my visit to the church I wasn’t able to record the sounds of the Cavaillé-Coll organ but I did nevertheless capture the sound of music. It wasn’t the sound of conventional organ and choral music from the nave of the church but more contemporary music I found below, in the crypt.
The crypt below the chapel of the Blessed Virgin
Sounds from the crypt of the Église de la Sainte-Trinité:
In the crypt I discovered a service taking place with the celebrants mainly, but not exclusively, African. It made a refreshing change from the rigid conformity that usually takes place in the conventional catholic services held in the nave above.
I think Olivier Messiaen would approve.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE a day makes!
Shortly before 11.00 this morning I arrived in Place Jean-Paul II, the open space in front of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, to find that it was home to a selection of the world’s media. Radio and TV broadcasters were busy establishing satellite links with their studios and preparing to broadcast ‘live’ to their audiences around the world.
Yet twenty-four hours earlier the media would have been hard pressed to find a story here – any story – let alone a story worth reporting. But then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, everything changed.
Shortly before 11.30 yesterday morning, 7th January, two masked gunmen armed with Kalashnikov rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher stormed the headquarters of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in rue Nicolas Appert in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. They shot and killed twelve people, including eight Charlie Hebdo employees and two police officers, and wounded eleven others.
After the news broke, there was an outpouring of sympathy for the victims, support for freedom of speech, and defiance against the perpetrators. The symbol for all this became encapsulated by the declaration, “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”).
At midday today people in Paris and across France paused for a minute of silence to mourn the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
In declaring today a day of national mourning it was decreed that flags on all public buildings should be flown at half mast and that the bells of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris should be rung in honour of the victims.
The Bells of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris speaking for the nation:
From the Place Jean-Paul II I listened as the cathedral bells began to peal a minute or two before midday. The rain fell, a crowd gathered and then the sound of the bells faded and the crowd fell silent. The sound of a police siren in the distance reminded us why we were here and brought into stark relief the names of those who were not, those who were murdered at around this time yesterday …
- Frédéric Boisseau, 42, building maintenance worker for Sodexo, killed in the lobby
- Franck Brinsolaro, 49, police officer, was assigned as a bodyguard for Charb
- Cabu (Jean Cabut) 76, cartoonist
- Elsa Cayat, 54, psychoanalyst and columnist
- Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), 47, cartoonist, columnist and editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo
- Philippe Honoré, 74, cartoonist
- Bernard Maris, 68, economist, editor, and columnist
- Ahmed Merabet, 42, police officer, shot in the head as he lay wounded on the ground outside.
- Moustapha Ourad, proofreader
- Michel Renaud, 69, festival organiser, a guest at the meeting
- Tignous (Bernard Verlhac), 57, cartoonist
- Georges Wolinski, 80, cartoonist
After the silence the bells began to peal again and they did so for a further twenty minutes. Despite the heavy rain, practically everyone stayed until the bells had finished after which there was spontaneous applause.
It seemed to me that the silence, surrounded by the sound of the bells and the sound of the rain falling like tears from the sky said everything that needed to be said.
The remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo have announced that publication will continue, with next week’s edition of the newspaper to be released as usual except that, with eight pages, it will be half its usual length – but it will have a print run of one million copies compared to its usual 60,000.
DEDICATED TO THE 2nd century Italian martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, the Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais is one of the oldest churches in Paris and it’s to be found in the 4th arrondissement, just east of the Hôtel de Ville.
There has been a church on this site since the 4th century but work on the present church was begun in 1494. The chapels of the apse were finished in 1530 and the transept in 1578.
The early building is in the Gothic style but the western front of the church was built in the classical style. It was completed in 1620.
The Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais is home to a fine French Baroque style organ built by François-Henri Clicquot. The organ was restored in the 1970’s but seventeen of the forty-one organ stops remain from the 17th century and fifteen from the 18th century, including all the reeds. All the wind-chests date from before the French revolution.
Perhaps the most celebrated organist of l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais was the French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist, François Couperin.
The church also boasts two other, much smaller, chapel organs.
On 29 March 1918, a German shell fired by the long-range “Paris Gun“, fell on the church during a Good Friday service killing 88 people and wounding 68 others. This was the worst single incident involving the loss of civilian lives during the German bombardment of Paris in 1918.
In 1975, l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais became the headquarters of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem founded by Père Pierre-Marie Delfieu. Devoted to monastic life in an urban context, most of its members work part-time in civil occupations.
I went into l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais recently. As always, I had a sound recorder with me but the sounds I recorded were not the sounds of a service taking place or the sounds of the François-Henri Clicquot organ. Instead, they were quite unexpected sounds.
Sounds inside l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais:
Yes, I recorded the sounds of the other visitors in the church, their footsteps and their chatter, but the sounds that captivated me were the fascinating sounds of this creaking wooden door.
From now on, these rather haunting sounds are the sounds I shall always associate with l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais. I can’t help wondering if François Couperin would recognise them.
I SPEND A LOT of my time walking the streets of Paris listening to and recording the everyday sounds around me, the sound tapestry of the city.
Recording urban soundscapes is not as easy as you might think. In our modern digital world where we’ve come to expect affordable technology to turn us all into instant experts, one might be forgiven for thinking that recording urban soundscapes is simply a matter of pointing and shooting and hoping for the best – but it doesn’t quite work like that. Capturing the most expressive and lasting images of the sounds around us requires a heady cocktail of active listening, enthusiasm, hard work, endless patience, attention to detail and an ear for a captivating subject, not to mention copious amounts of shoe leather.
Captivating sounds seldom appear to order, they are often elusive and need to be hunted out and to hunt them one needs time, often lots of time. Few things are more frustrating than spending an entire day pounding the streets searching for that special sound only to come home empty-handed. But on a good day, it only takes one chance moment to come home with an absolute gem.
The great 20th century Parisian street photographer, Robert Doisneau, summed up this element of chance by saying, “Chance … You have to pay for it and you have to pay for it with your life, you pay for it with time – not the wasting of time but the spending of time.”
And sometimes the spending of time can bring a huge reward.
Les Halles – the former ‘belly of Paris’
Recently, I was wandering around Les Halles, once the huge covered food market known as the ‘Belly of Paris’, and a part of Paris now undergoing much needed renovation. I’ve recorded there many times but this time captivating sounds seemed particularly elusive. I’d been there for most of the afternoon spending time but recording nothing and I was on the point of giving up and going home when the element of chance that Robert Doisneau spoke about intervened.
In the distance I could hear the sound of bells, the bells of the Église Saint Eustache, the gothic masterpiece in which the young Louis XIV received communion, the church chosen by Mozart for his mother’s funeral, the church where Richelieu was baptised and where both the future Madame de Pompadour and Molière were married. I followed the sound of the bells and began recording. The sounds led me into a little courtyard at the side of the church. I waited until the sounds of the bells faded and then, spying a very old, well-worn door, I opened it, entered the church and walked into a magnificent wall of sound coming from the Van den Heuvel organ being played by a young man sitting at the giant five manual console in the nave.
The Bells and Organ of Église Saint Eustache:
“… not the wasting of time but the spending of time.” And in this place, on this day, the spending of time was an investment richly rewarded.
Yesterday marked the third birthday of this blog. When I began it the world of blogging was very new to me and I had little idea of what I was doing or what shape this blog would take. All I had was a vague idea that I wanted to share two of my passions – the city of Paris and recording the everyday sounds around me. Now, three years on, this blog has taken on a life of its own with over 200,000 visitors and over 1,000 loyal followers.
To all those who visit this blog regularly, to those who just stop by as they’re passing and to all the friends I’ve made all over the world as a result of this blog I just want to say a heartfelt “Thank You”.
This recording of the sounds of the bells and the organ of Église Saint Eustache is a celebration of the life that this blog has taken on and I dedicate these sounds to you all.
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
AT FIRST SIGHT, the Rue Saint-Roch seems to be an ordinary street in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, a stones throw from the Jardin des Tuileries and the Musée du Louvre. But, as is so often the case in this wonderful city, things are not always quite what they seem.
Let’s start with the obvious. The most prominent feature in the street is the Église Saint-Roch at the junction of the Rue Saint-Roch and the Rue Saint-Honoré.
The church was built in the late baroque style. Louis XIV laid the foundation stone in 1653 and building was completed in 1754.
Sounds inside the Église Saint-Roch:
The church suffered during the French revolution, it was ransacked, and many works of art were stolen or destroyed. Scars of the revolution are still to be seen on the façade of the church with the marks left by flying bullets.
It’s a well-kept secret, but the Église Saint-Roch is notable because the French aristocrat, revolutionary politician, philosopher, writer and notorious libertine, the Marquis de Sade, was married here on May 17, 1763.
The Église Saint-Roch is special for me because it is yet another Parisian church with an organ that has the fingerprints of the master organ builders, François-Henri Clicquot and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll all over it.
In 1750, François-Henri Lesclop was commissioned to build the first organ but he died before the work was completed. François-Henri Clicquot was asked to finish the work, which he did in 1756. The organ was restored just over a hundred years later in 1859 and again in 1881 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. This magical combination of work by François-Henri Clicquot and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll is to be found in churches all over Paris, not least in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
And so, back to the Rue Saint-Roch itself. The origins of the street date back to somewhere around the tenth-century. It was officially named for the first time in 1450 as Rue Saint-Vincent then, several hundred years and several name changes later, it became Rue Saint-Roche in 1879.
Today, amidst scaffolding and extensive building work, Rue Saint-Roche is home to the Paris Bureau of the BBC who advertise their presence in rather austere terms compared to the other more elegant signage on the rest of the building.
Sounds in the Rue Saint-Roch:
The sounds of the Rue Saint-Roch may be what I came to listen to but what I especially came to see was this house, two doors down from the BBC office, N°41 Rue Saint-Roch. An ordinary looking house you might think, but this house has a history, a secret history. During the First World war, N°41 Rue Saint-Roche was the headquarters of a secret British military intelligence operation involving an underground espionage ring operating behind enemy lines.
The story of 41 Rue Saint-Roch is intriguing and brilliantly set out in Janet Morgan’s book, The Secrets of Rue St Roch. It’s a story of ingenuity, bravery and meticulous attention to detail, the very stuff of espionage behind enemy lines.
During the First World War, the Germans depended on trains to sustain and move their armies. The Allies realised the crucial importance of timetable information and of knowing what troop trains in occupied territories were carrying. Movements of men and guns from one part of the front to another, or the clearing of hospitals in forward areas, indicated the position and timing of the next offensive.
It was difficult to find people who could provide such intelligence, and difficult for it to be passed on. The front line was impermeable, neutral borders mined and electrified, movement restricted and clandestine radio and aerial reconnaissance were in their infancies. The Allies made many attempts, but German counter-espionage was formidable – though one network, La Dame Blanche in Belgium, was an espionage triumph. There was no coverage of tiny Luxembourg, which became, as the war went on, an increasingly important rail hub.
It was partly to address this that Captain George Bruce, later Lord Balfour, was assigned to a department of British military intelligence at 41 Rue Saint-Roch. He identified a possible recruit, a middle-aged Luxembourgeoise called Lise Rischard, whom he persuaded to return to her country as a railway spy. She began reporting by letter and newspaper code, which was a difficult business but this improved when she was joined by another of Bruce’s agents, an irrepressible Polish-Belgian soldier called Baschwitz Meau, who had escaped five times from German prison camps.
Meau was inserted into Luxembourg by hydrogen balloon at a late and crucial stage of the 1918 German spring offensive. The importance of the intelligence that he and Rischard provided from the agents they recruited can be gauged by the honours they later received – she the CBE, he the DSO, and both were made Chevaliers of the Legion d’Honneur.
I often wonder how many of the people who pass along the Rue Saint-Roch every day have any idea of the secret history of the house at N°41.
I walk the streets of Paris endlessly, observing and listening, and I am constantly intrigued by how the seemingly ordinary can often turn out to be quite extraordinary. The Rue Saint-Roch is a perfect example of this serendipity.