Musical Space: The Music Of Notre Dame

Apr 23, 2019

The recent tragic fire at Notre Dame got me thinking about that building, and others like it. Music history is tied to a thousand years of cathedrals being at the cultural center of every European city.

(music: Léonin, “Viderunt Omnes,”  Early Music Consort of London / David Munrow, Music of the Gothic Era, 1985)

Every music student learns about Notre Dame. 12th-century composers at the newly-built Cathedral gave us some of the earliest notated examples of polyphony, the combination of more than one melody at the same time. The art of polyphony is what sets Western music apart from the rest of the world. This music seems strange to us - it goes back to before the invention of major and minor scales and chords - but the polyphonic mastery of Bach, Beethoven and Count Basie can traced back to those Parisian monks.

And the bells: these are the very ones rung by Victor Hugo’s hunchback. Then there’s the organ. With 5 keyboards and 8000 pipes, it’s the biggest in France and arguably the most famous in the world. Thankfully, the bells and organ seem to have survived the fire, and the sanctuary, with its seven-second echo, will be rebuilt.

But churches have been burning in this country, too, and it’s good to remember their musical heritage. American music - country, blues, jazz, rock and roll, soul, R&B, rap - all carries gospel DNA. Rebuilding these structures also has to happen, for many reasons, including their music history.

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Listening list:

Regarding Léonin, “Viderunt Omnes”:

Motet from the Magnus liber organi, a book of music written in Paris in the 12th century around the time that the cathedral was first constructed. This is true Goth music from the Gothic era. Written by Leonin, original composer of what we now call the Notre Dame school. This is among the earliest polyphonic music that we know.

Guillaume de Machaut (1300/1305-1377), La Messe de Nostre Dame  - Kyrie (1364)
Oxford Camerata / Jeremy Summerly

Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Pierre Cochereau/Grand organ at Notre-Dame in Paris

Sparks, “As I Sit Down To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral,” Hello Young Lovers, (2006)

Aretha Franklin, “Mary, Don’t You Weep (traditional)” Amazing Grace (1972)  

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