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Lamenting the loss of Notre-Dame’s acoustics


P Deliss | Godong | Photononstop | AFP

J-P Mauro - published on 06/28/19

It's hard to imagine a world without music, but let's try.

Before we could put our earbuds in and experience a dizzying multitude of music from the comfort of anywhere we could possibly desire it, music was a scarce commodity. Music could only be heard in the presence of performers, and even then the acoustics were almost never ideal.

Imagine that you’re a 13th-century French field hand. You may hear some of your compatriots meandering through a work tune in open air, where the sound of ones voice dissipates almost as soon as a note is sung. Perhaps later that evening you walk on sore legs to the local pub for a drink of ale and a bowl of stew and there in the corner is an old man with a lyre accompanying a barmaid singing a ditty. Sure, they sound pleasant, but the vibrations of her voice don’t bounce off the old wood interior very well and the lyre is left sounding rather muted.

Now, imagine it’s Sunday. Although you don’t have to work, you wake up early to bathe and dress in what finery you may own in order to take your family up to the Notre-Dame Cathedral for worship. There, in the grandest halls you’ve ever seen, the angelic sounds of the only recently emerging polyphony ring through the rafters, bounce off the stone walls, and sound like a transcendent choir of angels, all of which is accompanied by a pipe organ, the largest instrument in the world, which seems to shake the very pews themselves with rich reverberation.

The written word can capture many things, but the thrill of music is not one of them, and while we still have recordings from Notre-Dame, the experience of music in this building has been hushed by the recent devastating fire that has silenced the French cathedral’s voice.

These are some of the considerations lamented by Jez Wells and John Potter, Senior Lecturer and Reader Emeritus at the Department of Music, University of York, respectively. The two experts expanded on the observation of English organist Graham Steed, when he noted of Notre-Dame:

“One plays, not only on the instrument, but on the building itself.”

In their remembrance of the grandest European cathedral outside Vatican City, Wells and Potter explained that the scale of Notre-Dame as a musical venue was so great that it demonstrated and facilitated a need for larger musical scoring. They wrote for History Today:

For hundreds of years the liturgy had known only the single lines of Gregorian chant, sung daily from memory by the clergy. Some time in the late 12th century Magister Leoninus, composer, poet and canon of the cathedral, compiled the Magnus Liber Organi (The Great Book of Organum), the first significant collection of music in more than one part, requiring virtuosic soloists in addition to the chant choir. A generation later, Magister Perotinus reworked many of these into elaborate pieces for up to four voices. The sheer scale of these manuscripts and the sophisticated musical establishment that they implied parallels the creation of the vast Gothic construction in which they were first heard.

In an age of recorded music and streaming services, it’s hard to imagine a time when music was a rarity, when the church bells on Sunday were a call to the greatest musical concert of the day. This is what Notre-Dame was for the people of Paris, and the cathedral remained an important location for the development of music for hundreds of years.

This is just another aspect of the tremendous historical loss felt by the Church on that clear April day, when a fire all but gutted the sacred interior. It is our sincerest hope that Notre-Dame Cathedral will be meticulously rebuilt, so that voices rising in praise of the glory of God might one day ring through the rafters again and offer the congregation a transcendent musical experience once more.

CatholicFranceMusicNotre Dame
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