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 A GOOD PART my time recording and archiving the soundscapes of Paris. As fascinating as the contemporary soundscapes of this city are though, I am always thinking about what the city might have sounded like in the past when sounds were impossible to capture and to replay.
It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that it became possible to record sound and well into the twentieth century before attention turned towards recording urban soundscapes. Before that, our only source for what our towns and cities might have sounded like is to be found in literature – the written accounts of the sounds people heard.
The American writer, John Sanderson, for example arrived in Paris for the first time in July 1835 …
“All things of this earth seek, at one time or another, repose – all but the noise of Paris. The waves of the sea are sometimes still, but the chaos of these streets is perpetual from generation to generation; it is the noise that never dies.”
John Sanderson, Sketches of Paris: In Familiar Letters to His Friends (1838)
Clearly, John Sanderson wasn’t impressed with what he found. But contrast that with a description of a much earlier Paris.
In Chapter 2 of Book Three of his novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, also known as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo offers us a Bird’s Eye View of Paris in which he describes in fascinating detail the visual landscape of fifteenth century Paris from the top of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
A Modern Day View from the Top of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
Image via Wikipedia
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was published in 1831 and it is clear in the novel that Victor Hugo was lamenting how the city had changed. About the Cathedral for example he says:
“The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.”
But it is when it comes to the sounds of fifteenth century Paris that Hugo is at his most eloquent.
“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. Behold, at a signal given from heaven, for it is the sun which gives it, all those churches quiver simultaneously. First come scattered strokes, running from one church to another, as when musicians give warning that they are about to begin. Then, all at once, behold! – for it seems at times, as though the ear also possessed a sight of its own,—behold, rising from each bell tower, something like a column of sound, a cloud of harmony. First, the vibration of each bell mounts straight upwards, pure and, so to speak, isolated from the others, into the splendid morning sky; then, little by little, as they swell they melt together, mingle, are lost in each other, and amalgamate in a magnificent concert. It is no longer anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly sent forth from the numerous belfries; floats, undulates, bounds, whirls over the city, and prolongs far beyond the horizon the deafening circle of its oscillations.
Nevertheless, this sea of harmony is not a chaos; great and profound as it is, it has not lost its transparency; you behold the windings of each group of notes which escapes from the belfries. You can follow the dialogue, by turns grave and shrill, of the treble and the bass; you can see the octaves leap from one tower to another; you watch them spring forth, winged, light, and whistling, from the silver bell, to fall, broken and limping from the bell of wood; you admire in their midst the rich gamut which incessantly ascends and re-ascends the seven bells of Saint-Eustache; you see light and rapid notes running across it, executing three or four luminous zigzags, and vanishing like flashes of lightning. Yonder is the Abbey of Saint-Martin, a shrill, cracked singer; here the gruff and gloomy voice of the Bastille; at the other end, the great tower of the Louvre, with its bass. The royal chime of the palace scatters on all sides, and without relaxation, resplendent trills, upon which fall, at regular intervals, the heavy strokes from the belfry of Notre-Dame, which makes them sparkle like the anvil under the hammer. At intervals you behold the passage of sounds of all forms which come from the triple peal of Saint-Germaine des Prés. Then, again, from time to time, this mass of sublime noises opens and gives passage to the beats of the Ave Maria, which bursts forth and sparkles like an aigrette of stars. Below, in the very depths of the concert, you confusedly distinguish the interior chanting of the churches, which exhales through the vibrating pores of their vaulted roofs.
Assuredly, this is an opera, which it is worth the trouble of listening to. 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. Lend an ear, then, to this concert of bell towers; spread over all the murmur of half a million men, the eternal plaint of the river, the infinite breathings of the wind, the grave and distant quartette of the four forests arranged upon the hills, on the horizon, like immense stacks of organ pipes; extinguish, as in a half shade, all that is too hoarse and too shrill about the central chime, and say whether you know anything in the world more rich and joyful, more golden, more dazzling, than this tumult of bells and chimes;—than this furnace of music,—than these ten thousand brazen voices chanting simultaneously in the flutes of stone, three hundred feet high,—than this city which is no longer anything but an orchestra,—than this symphony which produces the noise of a tempest.”
In articles for this blog I always include a sound, or sounds, of Paris that I’ve recorded, to which I add words and pictures to give the sounds an historical, social or cultural context. On this occasion, any sounds I could add would be quite superfluous to the words of Victor Hugo and the magnificent soundscape he describes.
I suggest you just relax, read Hugo’s words and, as he says, “Lend an ear, then, to this concert … this symphony which produces the noise of a tempest”.
IT WAS JULIUS CAESAR who gave the ‘city of the Parisii’ tribe’ the name Lutetia in the first-century BC. The Roman settlement of Lutetia broadly corresponds to today’s 5th Arrondissement, it extended roughly from the Rue Mouffetard in the east to the Rue de Vaugirard in the west and from the Boulevard Saint-Germain to a little beyond the Montaigne Saint-Geneviève.
Like all Roman cities, Lutetia was adorned with porticoed buildings, a forum, a temple, private dwellings, public baths, an impressive aqueduct to supply the settlement’s water needs and an arena for sports and entertainment.
The arena – the Arènes de Lutèce – was built as an amphitheatre around 200 AD and it could accommodate around 15,000 people, almost twice the population of the then city. It was a little unusual in that as well as theatrical productions, animal fights and gladiatorial combats, its sunken location meant that it could also be filled with water to accommodate aquatic sports and entertainment. Great mock sea battles were fought here.
The Arènes de Lutèce as it probably looked to the Romans
It didn’t last though. Lutetia was sacked by barbarian invasions and the Arènes de Lutèce fell into decay. The centre of the arena became a burial ground and the stones were pillaged to reinforce the city defences around the Île de la Cité. The construction of the Philippe Auguste wall in the thirteenth-century marked its final disappearance. The Arènes de Lutèce was out of sight and out of mind save for the name given to a neighbourhood quartier, les Arènes.
And it remained that way until Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris in the mid nineteenth-century. During the construction of the Rue Monge some of the surviving remains of the arena were discovered by Théodore Vaquer, one of the unsung heroes of Parisian conservation. Haussmann though was all about the future with little time for the past and so he pressed on. He had the site bulldozed and built an omnibus station.
In the late nineteenth-century, further construction revealed more of the Arènes de Lutèce but by this time attitudes were changing. A strident public debate led by Victor Hugo and others got underway. Hugo wrote an open letter in which he said:
“It is not possible that Paris, the city of the future, should renounce the living proof that it was a city of the past. The arena is an ancient mark of a great city. It is a unique monument. The municipal council which destroys it would in some manner destroy itself. Conserve it at any price.”
Two of the animal cages
The campaign was successful and funds were dedicated to restoring the arena and establishing it as a public space, which was opened in 1896. And so it remains today.
Sounds of the Arènes de Lutèce:
In today’s Arènes de Lutèce there are no sights or sounds of animal fights, gladiatorial contests or great sea battles – instead there are people sitting on green benches doing nothing in particular or enjoying picnics or games of Pétanque, all accompanied by the ever present children playing football – and the occasional bird scarer.
This arena was built as a place of entertainment … and so it continues today.
ONE MIGHT BE FORGIVEN for thinking that exploring the sewers of Paris is rather a bizarre way to spend an afternoon. On the contrary, it’s fascinating … if a little malodorous.
Entrance to Le Musée des Égouts de Paris
The Sounds in the Boutique:
Many people have written about the sewers of Paris but few have done it better than Victor Hugo …
“Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form.”
(Les Miserables, Jean Valjean; Book II, ch.I)
And then further on …
Let the reader imagine Paris lifted off like a cover, the subterranean net-work of sewers, from a bird’s eye view, will outline on the banks a species of large branch grafted on the river. On the right bank, the belt sewer will form the trunk of this branch, the secondary ducts will form the branches, and those without exit the twigs.
This figure is but a summary one and half exact, the right angle, which is the customary angle of this species of subterranean ramifications, being very rare in vegetation.
A more accurate image of this strange geometrical plan can be formed by supposing that one is viewing some eccentric oriental alphabet, as intricate as a thicket, against a background of shadows, and the misshapen letters should be welded one to another in apparent confusion, and as at haphazard, now by their angles, again by their extremities.
(Les Miserables, Jean Valjean; Book II, ch.II)
The ‘belt sewer’ to which Hugo refers was built on the Right Bank of la Seine in the time of Louis XIV but the Left Bank was not so lucky, there the river Biévre was used as their sewer.
Pierre Emmanuel Bruneseau was the Inspector of Works for the City of Paris and in 1805 he set about exploring and mapping the ancient and ageing sewer system. Victor Hugo was a friend of Bruneseau and he wrote that, “Nothing could equal the horror of this old, waste crypt, the digestive apparatus of Babylon.” When he finished the work in 1812 Bruneseau he was hailed as “intrepid” and the “Christopher Columbus of the cess-pool”.
The Sounds in the Galerie Bruneseau:
By the middle of the nineteenth-century, Baron Haussmann was not only transforming Second Empire Paris above ground, his reach had also extended below ground. In March 1855 he appointed Eugène Belgrand, a French engineer, as Director of Water and Sewers of Paris.
Belgrand embarked on an ambitious project. The tunnels he designed were intended to be clean, easily accessible, and substantially larger than the previous Parisian underground. Under his guidance, Paris’s sewer system expanded fourfold between 1852 and 1869. He also addressed the city’s fresh water needs, constructing a system of aqueducts that nearly doubled the amount of water available per person per day and quadrupled the number of homes with running water.
In recognition of his work, Belgrand’s name is one of seventy-two names engraved on the Eiffel Tower and the main gallery of le Musée des Égouts is also named after him, as is a street in Paris.
The Sounds in the Galerie Belgrand:
The Parisian sewers mirror the streets above. Each sewer “street” has its own blue and white enamel street sign and the outflow of each building is identified by its real street number.
One of the displays in the museum that attracts a great deal of attention is this giant iron ball. The sewers are regularly cleaned using spheres like this, just smaller than the system’s tunnels. The build up of water pressure behind the ball forces it through the tunnel network until it emerges somewhere downstream pushing a mass of filthy sludge.
The Parisian sewers have always fascinated tourists and they were first opened to the public during the Exposition Universelle of 1867. At that time, they stretched for 600 km underneath the city. Today, that has been extended to 2,100 km. Every day, 1.2 million cubic metres of water pass through the system. The sewer system not only handles drinkable and non-drinkable water but it’s also home to telecommunication cables and traffic-light management cables.
It’s worth remembering that this section of the Paris sewers may be a museum but it’s also a working sewer and the dominant sounds of the museum are the sounds of sewage water passing under one’s feet!
Perhaps Victor Hugo should have the last word …
The sewer is the conscience of the city. Everything there converges and confronts everything else. In that livid spot there are shades, but there are no longer any secrets. Each thing bears its true form, or at least, its definitive form. The mass of filth has this in its favour, that it is not a liar. Ingenuousness has taken refuge there. The mask of Basil is to be found there, but one beholds its cardboard and its strings and the inside as well as the outside, and it is accentuated by honest mud. Scapin’s false nose is its next-door neighbour. All the uncleannesses of civilization, once past their use, fall into this trench of truth, where the immense social sliding ends. They are there engulfed, but they display themselves there. This mixture is a confession. There, no more false appearances, no plastering over is possible, filth removes its shirt, absolute denudation puts to the rout all illusions and mirages, there is nothing more except what really exists, presenting the sinister form of that which is coming to an end. There, the bottom of a bottle indicates drunkenness, a basket-handle tells a tale of domesticity; there the core of an apple which has entertained literary opinions becomes an apple-core once more; the effigy on the big sou becomes frankly covered with verdigris, Caiphas’ spittle meets Falstaff’s puking, the louis-d’or which comes from the gaming-house jostles the nail whence hangs the rope’s end of the suicide. A livid foetus rolls along, enveloped in the spangles which danced at the Opera last Shrove-Tuesday, a cap which has pronounced judgment on men wallows beside a mass of rottenness which was formerly Margoton’s petticoat; it is more than fraternization, it is equivalent to addressing each other as thou. All which was formerly rouged is washed free. The last veil is torn away. A sewer is a cynic. It tells everything.
EACH PARIS METRO station has a name. These names are often taken from current or former street names in the area close to the station, which in turn are associated with people, places or events significant to the French. To travel on the Paris Metro is to travel the gamut of French history.
The station Barbès-Rochechouart is a good example. Situated at the point where the 9th, 10th and 18th arrondissements meet, the station is home to two metro lines, Line 2 and Line 4. At this station, Line 4 is underground and Line 2 becomes another one of Fulgence Bienvenûe’s aerial metro lines.
The sound Barbès-Rochechouart station Line 2:
The station was named after two streets close by – Boulevard Barbès and Boulevard de Rochechouart. These streets were named after two people – Armand Barbès and Marguerite de Rochechouart.
Armand Barbès (1809 – 1870) was a radical politician who twice attempted to overthrow the French Government and twice escaped the worst of the consequences. The first time was an attempted coup in 1832 against the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, the last King of France, for which Barbès was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. Thanks to a petition to the court for leniency by Victor Hugo his sentence was commuted to life in prison. In fact, he was released from prison at the beginning of the 1848 revolution. His second attempt was in May 1848 when he failed to overthrow the Provisional Government. For this he was convicted and imprisoned again until 1854 whereupon he was exiled to The Hague in the Netherlands.
Marguerite de Rochechouart de Montpipeau (? – 1727) was the Abbess of a convent called Les Dames de Montmartre from 1717 to 1727. The Boulevard Rochechouart was laid out on property owned by the Abbey. Being an Abbess of itself probably didn’t qualify Marguerite de Rochechouart to have a street named after her but being the sister of Mme de Montespan, long-time mistress to Louis XIV, probably helped.
The Boulevard de Rochechouart enjoyed a period of notoriety later in the eighteenth-century when it became home to a selection of cabarets one of which was called Aux Armes de Madame l’Abbess and another Le Caprice des Dames – perhaps a more evocative memorial than a mere street name.
But it was not to last. By the mid-nineteenth century the area around the Boulevard de Rochechouart had become a very poor working-class neighbourhood. In his book, L’Assommoir, Emile Zola tells a classic tale of poverty and alcoholism set almost entirely around what is now the metro station Barbès-Rochechouart.
The sound of the Boulevard de Rochechouart: