Europe 2013: The Notre Dame Bells

The Cathédrale Notre Dame. Your Glory Will Rise Again.

Sunday morning in Paris broke chilly but sunny. I started the day with services at the Cathédrale Notre Dame, a beautiful church with stunning architecture, two rose windows, and two organs—the great organ and the choir organ. The great organ has five keyboards, one hundred and ninety ties, and eight thousand pipes. It is the largest organ in France and the most famous in the world. During high mass the melodious tones of the great organ filled the basilica’s naves—indisputably the most spiritually moving sound any instrument has ever made.

Equally inspiring are the church bells, four of which sit atop the northern tower and have rung every fifteen minutes since 1856. During the revolution, between 1791 to 1792, previous Notre Dame bells were taken down, broken, and melted down. Fortunately, the great bell Emmanuel, the masterpiece of the group, was spared. It sits at the top of the south tower, remaining one of the most beautiful “sound vessels” in Europe.

In 2012, as part of a facelift in preparation for the cathedral’s 850th anniversary, some of the bells were melted down and replaced by nine new ones. But the great 1681 “Bourdon Emmanuel” bell mentioned above was preserved. The new bells were unveiled to the public on February 2013, and were rung for the first time two months before we arrived in Paris. Not all of the bells chime in unison every day, but when they do, they wake up all of Paris.

Not everyone was happy about the replacement of the bells, and some scoffed at the idea that the new ones could recreate the sound of the original seventeenth-century bells. But as Philippe Paccard, the owner of the oldest bell foundry in France said, “Bells are like human beings. They live and, one day, they fade.”

As we emerged from the cathedral and walked toward the Seine, I was followed by the resounding peal of bells. Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame came to mind:

No idea can be formed of Quasimodo’s delight on days when the grand peal was sounded. He mounted the spiral staircase of the bell tower faster than anyone else could have descended it… The first shock of the clapper and the brazen wall made the framework upon which it was mounted quiver… At length the grand peal began; the whole tower trembled; woodwork, leads, cut stones, all groaned at once…

With these words still ringing in my ears—or perhaps the sound of pealing bells—we headed to the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge linking the Louvre to the south bank of the river. Read more about Paris: Europe 2013: The Notre Dame Bells

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