Music of Notre-Dame

Regarded as one of the famous cultural sites in the world, Notre-Dame de Paris suffered a massive fire on April 15, 2019. Initial phases of salvaging and planning for repairs were slowly underway when the coronavirus pandemic brought all of France – and the world – to a standstill, the latest in a series of unfortunate setbacks. More than just a place of worship, the cathedral has stood the test of time and witnessed many of France’s most important historical moments.

Completed in the 1300s, the site on which it was built has an even more extensive history, with a temple dedicated to the god Jupiter from the Roman era. A church replaced the temple in the third century. In 1160, Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris, desired to build a larger church in the style of the then-current French Gothic architecture. Successive additions included flying buttresses, gargoyle statues, and the spire (now destroyed) in the 1200s. Also added in that century were stained glass windows, installed at the west, north, and southern part of the cathedral.

Notre-Dame de Paris, before the April 15 fire. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Since the inception of Sully’s construction, music has been an integral part of Notre-Dame. Composers Léonin and Pérotin are accredited with establishing the musica antiqua style. Adopted from existing repertoires of their time, this style changes the length, range, and number of singers. They create music with dynamic texture, singing in unison while also created distinct flows that are both ‘very’ medieval and unique in the music of the period. From this emerges the Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris, a pre-college music school in Paris. In 1991, the Sacred Music (Musique Sacrée) was founded in partnership with the Maîtrise and other governing bodies. It became responsible for the coordination of music; teaching and training singers; and promote extensive research into the cathedral’s music history.

The oldest of the bells of the cathedral, Emmanuel, was installed in the 1400s. Tuned to F sharp, it has rung for many historical moments: royal (and imperial) coronations, papal visits, and the end of major conflicts. The equally renowned organ, too, was installed in the 1400s, though it has been replaced and modified in successive centuries. The position of Chief Organist is regarded as one of the most prestigious posts in France. Olivier Latry was appointed to the post in 1985. His latest album, Bach to the Future, was recorded earlier this year in the cathedral. Experimenting Baroque music on an organ made for medieval music, he recorded several of Bach’s organ composition in this colossal structure. His album would be the last recording on the organ before the devastating fire.

Notre-Dame de Paris has witnessed coronations, marriages, revolutions, and liberations over eight centuries. Regardless of color, culture, or creed, the cathedral represents the resilience – and resistance – of the French nation. Though the building may never be the same, the enduring spirit of Notre-Dame will remain in the hearts and minds of many. And, as shown by many singing sacred music hours after the blaze, so will its music tradition.

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