New Tones For Old Stones: The Bells of Notre Dame

“What [Quasimodo] loved above all else in the maternal edifice, that which aroused his soul, and made it open its poor wings, which it kept so miserably folded in its cavern, that which sometimes rendered him even happy, was the bells.” –Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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Recently the nave of Notre Dame was the site of a unique meet-and-greet as a handful of fresh Parisian residents were on hand to say hello to their new neighbors. To celebrate the church’s 850th birthday, nine freshly-cast bells are being installed to bring the cathedral back to a former audible glory it hasn’t seen since the 17th century.

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As charming as it is today to be within earshot of the towers as they bellow out their tones, apparently what we’ve been hearing is a faint echo of what listeners enjoyed centuries ago. The two large belfries originally held a total of ten bells—twice as many as today–which allowed for a melodic range and harmonic richness worthy of the building that housed them.

But the storm of the 1789 French Revolution would tear through much of religious France, reducing 80% of the country’s bells to molten metal bound for cannon molds. Notre Dame wasn’t spared; nine of its ten bells suffered the same fate. Its largest, a 14-ton bourdon cast in 1686 and named Emmanuel, was dismantled from the south tower but luckily never destroyed. Napoleon would replace it once the revolutionary dust finally settled, in 1802.

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Later Napoleon III, always keen on completing his uncle’s unfinished business, ordered 4 small bells for the north tower to accompany the sole survivor Emmanuel. This 1856 configuration is the one we’ve come to know today; it chimed to mark the end of World War I, to celebrate the liberation of Paris from the Nazis in 1944, and to honor of the victims of 9/11. But despite having garnered their own historical significance, the four bells are made of a low quality metal which produces a weak sound and discordant harmonies, making them some of the most out-of-tune bells in France. They were also never properly tuned to Emmanuel, and with only five notes available the melodic possibilities were limited.

Church officials saw the 850th anniversary as an occasion to put things right, musically speaking, by ordering a set of bells to faithfully mimic the cathedral’s pre-Revolution sound. Eight of them were created in northern France following medieval techniques: a mixture of 78% copper and 22% tin was melted in a furnace of wood and coal, which was then poured into traditional molds made of clay, horse droppings and goat hair. (Photos courtesy of Notre Dame’s website)

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Once cooled, the old-school objects benefited from some 21st century tweaking in the form of computerized analysis to ensure proper tuning. Each bell represents a note of the F# major scale, spanning more than an octave, allowing the church to sing just about any tune it wishes. The largest of them will join Emmanuel  in the south tower; the other eight will ring nearby in the north tower.

Each bell was named after and dedicated to various saints and prominent Christians, including “Maurice” in honor of Archbishop Maurice de Sully who laid Notre Dame’s first stone in 1163. Unique hand-crafted ornaments were added to each and include various symbols and religious phrases. Among my favorite details are a band of  medieval-looking keys, and a faint floor plan of the cathedral itself:

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I spend most of my free time wrapped up in the history of Paris, pouring over photos and anecdotes, ingesting dates and names, scanning and dog-earing pages. The number of noteworthy events is as staggering as it is humbling, and it always leads to an inevitable question: How does my life fit into this history, if at all? I often wonder if I’ll ever be lucky enough to witness something chronicle-worthy, to hitch my little mortal wagon to one of those moments and ride it into the history books.

As I circled around these new bells I felt like I was doing just that. I observed them from afar and up close; I touched them as if I were touching the distant future and ancient past at the same time. I even rapped my knuckles on a few, coaxing out deep even tones that swelled up softly from beneath the commotion of the crowd. I tried to get my head around it: the vibrations I was producing with my hand would be washing over the streets and stones of Paris for the next…who knows, three hundred years? Five hundred?

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By then they’ll probably be known as the “Historic Bells of Notre Dame”, installed way back in the 21st century. And maybe a handful of future Parisians will think back to those sepia-stained antique days of 2013, imagining what it would’ve been like to be there in person, to be one of the lucky few to make them sing with the rap of a mortal knuckle. For once, it’ll be a historical footnote I won’t need an old photo or anecdote to remember.

The bells are scheduled to ring out across the city for the first time on March 23rd. You can bet I’ll be there to listen to them, and you can bet there won’t be a hunchback in the crowd any happier than this one.

About A French Frye in Paris

An American living in Paris, savoring the city one secret at a time. View all posts by A French Frye in Paris

40 responses to “New Tones For Old Stones: The Bells of Notre Dame

  • Eliza B

    Wow. I never knew any of this and I lived in Paris for 6 months. I didn’t even know Notre Dame had bells and I walked past it 3 days a week on my way to school. The process behind making the new bells shows so much thought and detail. This is a wonderful project and I’m glad you decided to share it with us. I hope the bell ringing on the 23rd is as incredible as it should be!

    • A French Frye in Paris

      Thanks Eliza. Yes I’m looking forward to hearing them ring for the first time!

      It’s true that it’s easy in Paris of all places to walk by something without knowing just how many secrets its hiding. That’s the fun part for me, trying to get to the bottom of it all. It might take me a lifetime or too, but I’ll get there! :)

  • hmunro

    You have blown me away with this post, Mr. Frye! You have somehow combined your wonderful reportage of a current event with the most pertinent historical facts about the bells, and added in a musical lesson — and a dash of metallurgy! — for good measure. Few people would be able to combine so many disparate bits of information into such an engaging, readable and interesting article. Well done! I am already looking forward to your follow-up post … sometime after March 23.

    • A French Frye in Paris

      Thanks so much Heather, I didn’t realize just how varied the info was until you mentioned it, but I guess you’re right. And let’s be honest–you wouldn’t have been able to sleep tonight without knowing the percentages of the metals in those bells. :)

      Thanks again for a wonderful and supportive comment. It’s like music to my ears (slight pun intended).

  • Lee I

    I hope I get to hear them on my next trip to Paris. Will they toll fairly regularly or just for special occasions?

  • haileyjw

    Hauntingly beautiful, what a great way to re-create the past and preserve it for the future.

    • A French Frye in Paris

      My thoughts exactly. There were some folks, even though we haven’t heard much from them, that were apparently upset over the current bells being replaced. I can understand where they’re coming from, seeing as the they’ve become part of history in their own right. I guess it’s another example of that common conundrum in Paris: do we keep the old or spruce it up with the new? Thanks for commenting!

  • Rustic Recluse

    Wow thank you for this wonderful history lesson! I’ve never followed French history much but this is so interesting!!! As for another comment above – do we keep the old or spruce it up with the new? You know really, I’m a sentimentalist … always keep with the old especially when it has such a rich story to tell! But i guess sometimes recreations / preservations are necessary evils to let that story survive!

    • A French Frye in Paris

      Glad you enjoyed the post Rustic. It’s strange, before moving here I wasn’t into history at all. But something about moving to Paris changed that; I see the city now as a big beautiful puzzle, and I harbor a little fantasy about unlocking all its secrets one day…even if that’s an impossible task. :)

      As for the keep-it-or-replace-it issue here, the life span of a bell is a maximum of 300 years, and some last as few as 50. We assume things like metal and stone last forever, but it’s not the case. If Notre Dame itself hadn’t been restored in the 19th century, its sculptures today would look like eroded lumps of sugar–I know because I’ve seen other French churches that haven’t been renovated, and it’s kind of sad. So like you said, necessary evils indeed.

      Thanks for your great comment!

      • Rustic Recluse

        Keep finding out the little pieces of history! I wish I could stay somewhere in Europe to do that too, instead of the infrequent trips that allow me to learn so little and cost so much :( Looking forward to reading more from you!

  • Jessica

    Interesting! Thank you for the history lesson! It makes buildings and inanimate objects come alive.

  • Linda G.

    I love this story of the bells. And the pics make it all the more “real.”

    For me, understanding and remembering history has always been difficult. But I have to tell you Corey, your Paris posts stick with me (except for dates. I usually land in the right century when remembering, but that’s about it.) It must be your writing style (which I love, by the way.) I wish you had been my History teacher, back in the day!

    • A French Frye in Paris

      Thanks so much Linda, that means a lot. I always try to share what I consider to be interesting knowledge, but without it feeling too dry or disconnected from real life. I’m so glad when people notice and appreciate that. :)

      As for dates, don’t be too hard on yourself–although I use specific dates for a story’s sake, I tend to think in broader terms as well, like centuries, or maybe half-centuries if my brain’s having a good day. :)

  • Karin P

    I learned so much! Thank you!

    And this was put so perfectly — it is just the part of Paris that I loved in the four years I spent there and the same question I had:

    The number of noteworthy events is as staggering as it is humbling, and it always leads to an inevitable question: How does my life fit into this history, if at all?

    Fantastic post.
    Karin

  • home, garden, life

    Please report on the 23rd! I once attended a ringing in the tower at the Washington National Cathedral, one memorable event. I believe that my heart would stop were I to witness Paris on the 23rd.

  • amandaroederwrites

    What an incredibly fascinating post! Thanks for sharing!

  • georginaguthrie

    What a gorgeous post! Notre Dame is one of my top places i’d like to visit. Thanks for sharing!

  • sophiaharcourt

    Ooooh I can’t wait to hear them! I wish I could have been there to touch them too. I have a recording of my family and I sitting outside outside a restaurant in Saint Quentin having lunch during the ringing of the bells there. That sound is just magical mixed with the noise of a busy french restaurant.

    • A French Frye in Paris

      Yes there’s something about hearing the local bells toll, especially when in Europe. It’s such a characteristic sound. I’m really looking forward to hearing these on the 23rd; I think it will be a pretty moving experience. I’ll be posting about it for sure. :)

  • Sherievon

    I have just watched a documentary on the building of Notre Dame -an amazing watch on the History Channel, and your post adds more to my now growing knowledge of this beautiful church – thanks!

    • A French Frye in Paris

      So glad you enjoyed the post Sherievon; any time my blog can be put in the same sentence as the History Channel, I’ll take that as a major victory!

      Notre Dame, having been the cultural centerpiece of the city for the last 850 years, has so many layers of history I’m not sure I’ll ever unearth them all…but that won’t stop me from trying. :)

      So happy you stopped by and took the time to comment.

  • How to Live in France

    Wow that’s awesome. Great photos of the new bells. I don’t think I ever noticed hearing the bells either.

    • A French Frye in Paris

      Yeah I guess you need to be in the right place at the right time (and not be distracted by the rest of Paris) to notice the bells. They ring more often than you’d think for the church’s various masses and such. Thanks for stopping by & commenting!

  • Emilie

    Reblogged this on TESOL Global Network and commented:
    This is a fantastic story!

  • Emilie

    I can’t agree more with all and every comment above: your story is fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • msshe

    Reblogged this on mykentuckyliving and commented:
    I just have to share this info on Nôtre Dame in Paris, France. I say France because we have a Paris, Kentucky. Msshe

  • Sandy Allain

    Absolutely magnificent! I don’t know much about Notre Dame but with this great post it gives me some really good information about it that i really enjoyed.

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