The Auditory Personification Of The Gothic Age: Notre Dame As A Live Instrument And Witness To History Through Turmoil And Flames
Written by Nick Gonzaga
Notre Dame is a living, breathing singular instrument on a massive scale, and has played a crucial role in shaping music as we know it today. This piece is a brief exploration of Notre Dame’s history as cultural landmark, its contribution as a musical institution and the significance of the loss of its sound in the recent April fire that gutted the cathedral.
I was not aware that it was Sunday when I entered the massive doors between the two towers of the western facade on that humid June morning in 2003. I was jet lagged from my transatlantic flight over the international dateline the day before and maybe slightly hungover. As I slowly walked into the gallery of the virgin beneath the rose, with the multicolored light of its stained glass washing over my shoulders, the first notes from the organ pipes assaulted me like a shotgun blast and I stood stock still in my tracks, completely caught off guard. As I stared down the center aisle toward the high altar, which was somehow bathed in candle light from below and sunlight from above, the bells chimed in and I felt my knees get weak. It stole the very breath from my lungs and I could feel the beat of my heart in the tips of my fingers. When the cacophony reached its crescendo before immediately ceasing entirely, I actually heard the sound of my own throat swallowing just as the choir pierced the silence like an audible incarnation of the Seraphim. I couldn’t move for the entirety of the mass introduction. The overwhelming flood of emotion I felt at the very moment penetrated every fiber of my bones. My eyes involuntarily welled up with tears by sheer tyranny of will. Simply standing witness to the marriage of all of these elements at the same time had an effect on me that I can only describe as profoundly spiritual and inexplicably significant. That was the first, last and only time I had the privilege of occupying that sacred space for such a short, precious sliver of time. Even still to this day, after nearly 16 years, that memory defies any full sense of description this atheist can possibly conjure. What I heard that day was something I had never heard before and have never heard since. As much as I struggle to replicate it in my mind, the exact arrangement has faded and continues to elude me. You don’t have to be a Catholic to understand the importance of this church or to mourn its loss.
Shortly before sunset on April 15, 2019, during evening mass services, an alarm sounded through the hallowed halls of the cathedral. Photos of the smoke plumes began circulating on social media almost immediately. Millions across the globe watched live footage of the flame engulfed spire collapsing, the gasps and screams of horror coming from the crowds on the streets reminiscent of New Yorkers watching the Twin Towers fall on September 11th. The fire was extinguished, but after burning for 15 hours, the damage was absolute. With its ceiling entirely collapsed, Notre Dame as we know it has been forever changed.
Paris has suffered a heartbreaking string of tragedies over the last 5 years (or so). In January of 2015, two gunmen attacked the headquarters of the satirical newspaper Charli Hebdo, killing 12 employees and wounding 12 others before escaping to commit another pair of attacks over the following two days. In total, 20 lives were lost during the span of those attacks. To add insult to injury, only 8 short months later in November of the same year, another trio of attacks killed 130 people across the city still reeling from Charli Hebdo, during a coordinated series of mass shootings and suicide bombings. 90 attendees of an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan Theatre alone were killed, including the bands merchandising manager. Just two short years passed when in April of 2017, another gunman opened fire at the Champs-Élysées killing a police officer before being shot dead as a result… And now this.
Notre Dame played a crucial role in shaping music as we know it today. Most music students learn about Notre Dame as the birthplace of polyphony, or the practice of combining multiple melodies within the same piece of music, beginning with the early chants of Parisian monks practicing harmonization. Think “God Only Knows” toward the end when the harmonies overlap. The art of polyphony is what differentiates Western music from that of the rest of the world and it precedes even the invention of major and minor scales. From the early gothic era composers that gave way to Fugue, up to the modern music we listen to today, the polyphonic mastery of Bach and The Beach Boys can trace their musical DNA all the way back to Notre Dame.
One of the most important pieces housed in the cathedral’s collection is the massive 13th century organ, which thankfully survived the fire, although suffering minor damage. The organ itself is comprised of some 8,000 pipes dating back centuries. The lion’s share of the damage to the instrument was a result of the water used to extinguish the flames and was dealt primarily to the wind chest that provides air to the pipes while firefighters were battling the blaze. It’s difficult to describe the power the organist yields playing this magnificent piece of history during services. The sound it produces is chromosome rattling in the most profound sense of the phrase. Anyone who has heard a note ring from its ivory keys in person knows what it is to have one’s soul pierced by sound. It is the auditory personification of the gothic age.
Aside from the organ, the famous bells of Notre Dame also escaped the inferno with little to no major damage, as they were concealed within the added protection of the western facade towers and remain relatively unscathed. They are independently just as important a feature as any other identifying symbols of the famous church. Added at some point between the years 1220 and 1250, the bells have served as accompaniment for some of the most important events throughout history since they were first cast. The largest of the bells is actually named Emmanuel, weighs 13 tons and is tuned to F sharp. They have rung out to mark the coronation of kings, visits from the pope and to signal the end of the First World War. They have also been struck during funerals to mourn heads of state as well as in honor of the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. These are the very same bells the Hunchback rang in Hugo’s story, which brings us to the sanctuary.
The acoustics of the inner sanctum are said to hold a note for note seven second echo. With it’s high arched ceiling providing the surface area for such a lengthy sustain, the massive open space is vital to the ethereal sound that washes over worshippers and pilgrims alike. The instrument is irrelevant. Regardless of whether it’s the organ, the bells, the choir, or all of the above, the aforementioned spiritual vibrations that affect people at such a profoundly molecular level is essential to the experience as a whole. The entire church itself is its own singular instrument. That’s what makes this tragedy such a loss for the entire global musical community.
To put this loss into perspective, use The Hateful Eight as a frame of reference. On the set of the 2015 Quentin Tarantino western, a horrific mistake was made during the filming of a musical sequence. In this particular scene, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character sings “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” whilst strumming a weathered old guitar. Ever a stickler for authenticity, Tarantino requested and received a real C.F. Martin period guitar on loan from the Martin Company museum for the film. In the screenplay, Russell’s character snatches the guitar from Leigh out of frustration and smashes it against a wooden pillar, destroying it. The production crew had several replicas made to actually smash with cameras rolling. The plan was to film Leigh playing the antique guitar to get the authentic sound, have Russell snatch it away, cut the scene to swap out the real deal for the replica and resume filming before destroying the fake. For reasons that still remain a mystery, Russell forgot to hand it off and immediately smashed the 145 year old six string. The horror that you see on Leigh’s face in the movie is genuine because she knew it wasn’t the replica that he had just been reduced to splinters. As a result, the Martin Company museum will never again loan any guitar out for the production of a film... Ever. Now take that priceless guitar, multiply its age by 5, it’s size by a football field and only then you can begin to understand the scale of this tragedy.
The historic value of this building cannot be understated. The nearly 850 year old walls of the treasured structure have witnessed events that have shaped the world. With that being said, this actually isn’t all that bad. Notre Dame has been destroyed before. This isn’t the even first time the building has been gutted. It has a rich history of destruction and restoration. During the French revolution of the late 16th century the church was heavily vandalized even and nearly lost. It was looted and desecrated by revolutionary forces. Much of the property was confiscated or otherwise destroyed. At one point, even the original spire was torn down. For several years it sat in disarray, used as a wine storage warehouse for a time until Hugo’s 1831 novel reignited the city’s passion for the crumbling behemoth on the lonely island. Preliminary restoration plans are already in motion so there is plenty of reason for hope. While the original roof is gone forever, only the most talented artisans will be commissioned to rebuild it. The same can be said for the organ and the bells. A Dutch company has already propositioned the French government for a chance to replicate parts of the overall structure from the ashes of the fire using 3-D printing. They’ve already printed a replacement gargoyle from that material. Some experts are warning that the restoration as a whole may take up to a decade to complete as a result of the complex damage, despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s vow to “rebuild the cathedral more beautiful than ever” within the next five years.
To bring it all around, let’s recap. Notre Dame isn’t just some old church. The word “church” has the flexibility to mean so many different things for so many different people and in this particular instance, the SOUND of Notre Dame epitomizes that plurality better than any single non-secular definition. It’s a living, breathing singular instrument on a massive scale, serving as the womb of music as we now know it; A defiant testament of the beauty that which human touch is capable of, both architecturally and culturally. The loss of this structure and the irreversible damage sustained by it’s most iconic components is a tremendous loss to the historic record, but Notre Dame has experienced large scale damage before and will persevere again. Collectively, everyone should trust and believe that Notre Dame will endure. Sure, this probably puts a damper on any already planned Parisian excursions, but the artisans tasked with its reconstruction will toil away with the promise of guaranteed compensation. It’s too important to let go.
In the last few short weeks since the fire, several European billionaires have each pledged hundreds of millions of dollars towards its reconstruction. The church has more money than god (pun intended), so while it’s a nice thought and perfectly natural to want to contribute to its preservation, your monetary donation is probably not necessary. As much as I’d like to shamelessly solicit donations to The Trial & Error Collective, where we sweat to put in the man hours bringing you unparalleled original content, there are a number of worthy causes to donate to. All anyone of average means can do is help spread the spirit of perseverance by lifting others to the same Phoenician ascension. Here are a few organizations that could really use help from someone like you:
You can donate to Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides basic healthcare, cancer screening, STD testing, infertility services, hormone treatment and birth control to many of this country’s most vulnerable women. Whatever your political affiliation may be, thousands of disadvantaged women would otherwise not receive these essential services if not for Planned Parenthood. Fight me.
The Semper Fi Fund
Per their mission statement, Semper Fi Fund provides immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to combat wounded, critically ill and catastrophically injured members of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families. They deliver the resources they need during recovery and transition back to their communities. A+ rating among veteran nonprofits.
Seventh District Baptist Church Fires of St. Landry
You can help rebuild three historic black churches in the small Louisiana community of St. Landry Parish that were burned down as a result of arson only weeks prior to the Notre Dame fire. The small buildings that were lost did not possess troves of priceless art or ancient tapestries and there are currently zero billionaires pledging financial support to rebuild these humble structures.
Of course, if you have any shiny pennies left over after donating to one of the causes above, you can always put them here for safe keeping 😉