We’ve attended several concerts at Notre Dame de Paris. According to the church’s web site, sacred music has been an important part of Catholic worship for 1500 years. There is wonder in knowing that there have been perhaps 35 generations of worship in that place – many more if you count the Roman religious sites that existed there since about 50 AD. The gothic architecture has inspired people to look upward and consider their existence for a very long time, and the effect is no different today.
Sometimes when the mood of the music is right, I’ve found myself recalling the story of the Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, thinking about the scenes with Quasimodo, La Esmèralda, and Archdeacon Claude Frollo. The darkened cloisters, candles and spotlights illuminating selected works of art help the drama to come alive.
Sitting in a concert can bring to mind some of the church’s long history. In medieval days those darkened cloisters were the meeting places for members of the congregation. One can imagine the bustle and noise of a church filled each day with people meeting friends and exchanging news and ideas. At night it was cold and sombre and dark. The church was also the chief source of education and learning that provided impetus for the growth of Paris’s Latin Quarter. The religious music program at Notre Dame is a continuation of that focus on education.
During the Revolution, the mobs broke the windows and took everything of value from the church, including all but one of the bells. They also chopped off the heads and knocked down the statues of all the biblical kings that adorn the front of the building. The mobs mistakenly thought that the statues of biblical kings were those of the hated kings of France. In 1977, long after the figures of the kings had been replaced on the front of the building, the old heads and statues were rediscovered by workers digging around the foundation of a local Paris bank building. These relics of Notre Dame are now on display at Musée de Cluny. Napoleon chose the church as the site of his crowning and coronation as Emperor in 1807, as documented by the famous painting by Jacques Louis David. Even in our own short history in Paris, the church has become a familiar place to admire and visit, and going to concerts provides a perfect opportunity.
The 8000 pipe organ is one of the world’s largest and most famous, and the sound is magnificent. You can see and hear the organ in this U-tube video, which shows the instrument and explains (in French) some about how it works. I recorded a sample of a chorale concert featuring new compositions by 15 composers for a “Notre Dame Choir Book”. The concert music started out pretty dark and heavy with lots of minor chords, but fortunately the music became more hopeful as the night proceeded. The kids singing are between 12 and 14 years old, and they are really impressive. Here is part of the final piece, “Ô Notre Dame du soir” (Our lady of the evening – my apologies in advance for my poor movie making skills):
The lyrics are in French but translated were translated in the program as follows:
Our lady of the Evening,
Whose light shines forth after sunset,
Our hope through the night,
Bestow your maternal care
Shining star in the overcoming darkness,
O Queen of heaven!
Your tender smile
Is a reflection of God’s tenderness for His
children in exile,
Mother of forgiveness who gave us your Son,
Lead us to Jesus, the Light that was born of
You who dissipate darkness,
O most compassionate,
sweet Virgin Mary!