Notre Dame rings out with newly minted bells

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris rang in this Palm Sunday with a set of newly minted bells to mark its 850th anniversary. They replace what some unkindly called the most discordant bells in Europe. The new chimes were inaugurated Saturday.

The heart of Paris went suddenly silent as, for the first time in more than two centuries, 10 bells pealed out from Notre Dame Cathedral to thousands gathered to hear them on a sunny afternoon.

Some, like San Francisco tourist Faith Fuller, were moved to tears.

“They made me cry. This is 850 years of history of a fantastic cathedral. And I’m here in an historic moment hearing the bells ring for the first time. So it’s emotional for me, and beautiful.”

The ceremony was presided over by government officials and Roman Catholic clergy, including Paris archbishop, Cardinal Andre Ving-Trois, who said he hoped the bells will offer a melodious counterpart to the city traffic and bustle.

Notre Dame’s original bells were destroyed during the French revolution, melted down to make cannons and coins. Only one survived, 13-ton Emmanuel. The nine new bells are now hanging in the cathedral’s belfries. All are similarly named after religious figures. They replace four bells hung in the 19th century. They include a second big bell called Marie, which was cast in the Netherlands in the same tradition as Emmanuel.

The other eight smaller bells were cast in the Normandy foundry of bell maker Paul Bergamo.

“The idea of this project was to recreate a set of bells which was as great as the ones that were existing before the French revolution. It was not to recreate an old-style set, but a 21st century set of bells.”

The cathedral’s bells rang for coronations and for the end of the two world wars. But some bell experts joke their clangs were so discordant they rendered deaf Quasimodo, the famous fictional Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Bergamo is more diplomatic.

You can always find some worse. If it was for a medium-sized church lost in the countryside, maybe it could have been acceptable. But for the first church of France to have a set which is not one of the best sets in France is not acceptable.”

But replacing them has not been easy. Because of France’s 1905 law separating religion and state, the bells are property of the French government, not the Catholic church.

“That’s probably why it took so long to replace these bells. Because it was not a priority of the state to replace these bells.”

Bergamo’s foundry began crafting the eight smaller bells in February 2012, relying on years of historic research and modern-day computer modeling.

“A good bell is the bells which ring well. It is a bell for the found or the casting part is a bell with a good skin, a good aspect. And, thirdly, as a symbolic object, it should be a bell where the decoration has a meaning.”

The cathedral displayed the new bells last month, before hanging them up. More than a million visitors flocked to see them. Some gathered around Regis Singer, chief of the bell project, as he described their acoustics.

The bells must also be in tune with the main bell, Emmanuel, which sets the musical foundation. Together, bell maker Bergamo says, they are much more than the sum of their parts.

Listening to the bells ringing out, Parisian Patrice Birot describes them as both soft and strong.

“Definitely, I think the role of the bell is to gather people at one point. For me it’s a reminder that we have to be in one point in time, at the same time, at the same place, it’s like a French prise de conscience becoming aware of what is happening. And let’s find out what is happening.”

For the moment, the old bells are in Bergamo’s foundry as a search goes on for the best place to showcase them, probably in the cathedral grounds. They may not be in tune and they may not be beautiful, but they are part of history.

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