The bells, the bells...! Why Notre Dame is ringing the changes

Paris has echoed to a discordant tune since the medieval bells of Notre Dame were melted down for cannons during the French Revolution. But now the original peals are to be restored, reports John Lichfield

Quasimodo would, one presumes, have swung on his bell-rope with delight. Angélique- Françoise, Antoinette-Charlotte, Hyacinthe-Jeanne and Denise-David have finally been sent to the scrap heap.

For decades their voices have chorused a tuneless welcome or tolled a discordant final farewell to popes and presidents. For one and a half centuries, the four quarrelsome, old ladies – bells not belles – have faithfully, but jarringly, rung out the quarter hours for the Parisians.

But from this week, they have been replaced, temporarily, by a sound recording. From next year, their home in the north tower of Notre Dame cathedral will be occupied by eight harmonious bells, which will, in theory, recreate the sound which called Parisians to work or prayer throughout the 18th century.

Notre Dame cathedral, one of the most visited monuments and most revered religious sites in the world, is treating itself to a new voice for its 850th birthday next year – or rather an old voice. The new bells for the north tower will be replicas of the 17th-century bells melted down and turned into cannons during the French Revolution.

The retro-sound of Notre Dame will not be that of the medieval bells fictionally operated by Victor Hugo's hunch-backed bell-ringer, Quasimodo. They will, however, be a great improvement on the discordant sound made by the bells which have occupied the cathedral's north tower for the past 156 years. Despite their pretty and affectionate names, this quartet was, according to the bell expert, Hervé Gouriou, "one of the most dreadful sets of bells in France ... damaged and badly tuned".

The deaf and deformed 15th century bell-ringer Quasimodo is a secondary character in the novel Notre Dame de Paris, written by Victor Hugo in 1831. His role was much amplified in a celebrated Hollywood movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton in 1939 and by a Walt Disney animated film of the same name in 1996.

Hugo describes the "rising and falling scales" and complex tunes played by Quasimodo on the late medieval Notre Dame bells. But the north tower quartet fitted in 1856 could only ever play a few "snatches" of music, according to France's greatest bell expert, Régis Singer. They were badly cast from cheap metal. Nor were they tuned accurately to one another, to their surroundings or to the giant, surviving 17th century bell, know as Emmanuel, in the south tower. They grew even rougher and more discordant with the decades. Mr Singer has studied the cathedral records to discover the size, shape, weight and the precise hanging positions of the eight 17th century bells which were destroyed by revolutionaries in 1791 and 1792.

The Cornille-Havard bell foundry at Villedieu-les-Poêles in lower Normandy, one of four surviving in France, will recreate the lost Notre Dame bells using medieval methods. Bronze alloy will be poured into a mould made from clay, horse-dung and horse-hair. The eight new bells, weighing around one tonne each, will be hung in the old positions in time for the cathedral's 850th anniversary next year.

Some people rather liked the croaky old voice of Notre Dame. The sound was part of their childhood, they said, and replacing the bells was like replacing their grandmother's voice with that of an opera singer.

An internet campaign was launched last year against the €2.5m (£2.1m) bell renewal project. Fernando Gabrielli, a Brazilian jazz singer, posted a video on the internet of himself singing in tune with the tuneless Notre Dame bells. He even sent an open letter to the Pope. "My very dear Benedict XVI," Mr Gabrielli wrote: "It pains me greatly to face the risk of losing these French treasures which are so very dear to me."

To no avail. Angélique- Françoise, Antoinette-Charlotte, Hyacinthe-Jeanne and Denise-David were cut down last week and sent for scrap. Emmanuel, the great 13-tonne bell in the south tower, was spared, for a second time. In the early 1790s, the French revolutionaries declared Notre Dame to be a temple to the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being. The north tower bells became cannons. The same fate befell 80 per cent of church bells in France. Emmanuel, the south tower bell, forged in 1686, was cut down but never destroyed. In 1802, the Emperor Napoleon ordered that it should be re-hung.

Two hundred years on, Emmanuel is regarded as one of the finest church bells in the world, emitting a rich, F sharp, second-octave boom. But it is growing old and frail. Emmanuel can therefore only be used on special occasions. As part of the renewal project, funded by donations, the great south tower bell will be given a large, live-in sister called Marie, forged by the Royal Eijsbouts company in the Netherlands. She will join the eight new bells in the north tower in ringing out every 15 minutes but also in participating in services inside the cathedral.

One of the original purposes of the bells in the Middle Ages was to provide a backing track for the music played during the celebration of mass. With the old north tower quartet that was scarcely possible. The new bells will not only take part in the cathedral liturgy; they will ring out the passing hours for Parisians with religious melodies changing according to the church calendar.

Notre Dame is following a trend which has swept France in the decade, from the largest cathedrals to the smallest churches. Many French villages no longer have priests or regular masses. They have decided, nonetheless, to replace their long-lost church bells, not so much as a religious statement as a declaration of local community and identity.

Some experts say that half the bells destroyed during the revolution have been replaced. Others put the figure at a quarter. The new voice of Notre Dame has already been created digitally and put up on the cathedral's website.

So, what do the Notre Dame bell-ringers of today make of the new sound? Alas, all bell-ringing was automated and computerised long ago. The lineal successor to Quasimodo is a machine.

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