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The Bells of Notre Dame

“Hello everyone…”

That’s how the German-American musicologist Karl Haas used to begin his Peabody Award-winning radio show, Adventures in Good Music just after the fade-out of the show’s theme music (the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, played by Haas, himself). Adventures in Good Music aired on radio stations across the United States from 1970 to 2007. Growing up, one of my favorite episodes was The Story of the Bells, broadcast on Christmas Eve. It featured the distinct sounds of church bells in cities across Europe and the Middle East. 

Here at The Listeners’ Club, we’ve continued this tradition at Christmastime over the past few years. From the precision and almost endless mathematical possibilities of English change ringing, to the multiplicity of rhythms and pitches of Russian Orthodox bell ringing, each city and region has its own unique sound. Depending on your perspective, the deep-toned bells of Germany’s Cologne Cathedral (which include the largest free-swinging bell in the world, the mighty, 24,000 ton St. Petersglocke) may sound warm and soothing. Or perhaps there’s something awe-inspiring and slightly ominous about this sound.

In Europe, the distinct sound of church bells- used throughout history in times of celebration as well as peril- mark the city’s identity almost as much as its architecture. Part of the magic of bell ringing is the long, expansive crescendo- the way a single bell grows gradually into a mighty chorus, and the way a variety of pitches and rhythms mix together to form large-scale chance music. Brief musical motives accidentally emerge from a glorious, overtone-rich cacophony. For example, listen to this recording of the ten bells of Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral:

Ravel: La vallée des cloches

Now, listen to the way this gradually building chorus of bells inspired a piece of music. Maurice Ravel’s La vallée des cloches (“The Valley of the Bells”) is the final movement of Miroirs, a solo piano suite completed in 1905. A single tolling bell opens the door to a rich harmonic tapestry. The piece fades away with a single, unresolved bell tone. The “music” of bells is created by dense clusters of overtones. Ravel’s La vallée des cloches forces us to experience the expressive power of sound in a similar way. This recording is by Louis Lortie:

Christopher Rouse: Karolju

In celebration of Christmas, here is American composer Christopher Rouse’s 1990 suite of original Christmas carols, Karolju. The piece pays homage to Carl Orff’s colorful, larger-than-life 1937 cantata, Carmina Burana while evoking the glistening colors of the Christmas season. Here is an excerpt from the composer’s program notes:

As I wished to compose the music first, the problem of texts presented itself. Finding appropriate existing texts to fit already composed music would have been virtually impossible, and as I did not trust my own ability to devise a poetically satisfying text, I decided to compose my own texts in a variety of languages (Latin, Swedish, French, Spanish, Russian, Czech, German, and Italian) which, although making reference to words and phrases appropriate to the Christmas season, would not be intelligibly translatable as complete entities. It was rather my intent to match the sound of the language to the musical style of the carol to which it was applied. I resultantly selected words often more for the quality of their sound and the extent to which such sound typified the language of their origin than for their cognitive “meaning” per se.

A Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all Listeners’ Club readers!

Recordings

  • Ravel: Miroirs, Louis Lortie iTunes
  • Rouse: Karolju, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, David Zinman iTunes

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One Response to The Bells of Notre Dame

  1. Mary McGagh December 23, 2016 at 2:53 pm #

    In celebration of the 850th anniversary of the Cathedral of Notre Dame new bells were installed called Les Nouvelles Cloches de Notre-Dame.

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