Like so many, I watched with disbelief the live-reporting in April 2019 of the fire that engulfed Notre Dame. I emailed my colleague at its choir school, the Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris, and of course he was devastated.

A few days later he wrote: ‘More than ever, the Maîtrise is the ambassador of Notre Dame’s extraordinary heritage. That is why we are going to “shine” in other places, in Paris, in France, and throughout the world.’

As we come to terms with the tragedy of the fire and its consequences, we reflect on the centuries of music-making associated with this iconic building, a building that, with the sole exception of St Peter’s Rome, is the most visited ecclesiastical site in all Europe.

The history of Notre Dame and its role in French music

Notre Dame has arguably a unique place in Western European music’s history as the ‘cradle of polyphony’.

What is polyphony?

This was the moment in the 12th century when Gregorian chant was elaborated with two or even three additional rhythmicised vocal parts, with the plainsong – transferred to the bass part – becoming the ‘cantus firmus’. This newly minted, multi-voiced style was called ‘organum’ and was something of a sea-change.

Conventions swept in that allowed for the notation of unambiguous note-values, essential for managing musical synchronicity: the exact vertical alignment of separate vocal lines.

That this step was taken in late 12th-century Paris was no coincidence. Paris was then Europe’s intellectual hub, up for all manner of technical innovation and fresh thinking.

Notre Dame during the 12th and 13th centuries

If not alone in developing new polyphonic techniques, Notre Dame was the place that has left us the richest musical legacy of the 12th and early 13th centuries, in the form of the organa of the Magnus Liber (Great Book) of magister Léonin (1150s – c1201), further elaborated by magister Pérotin (died c1238).

The innovations went step by step with the building of the cathedral, although when Léonin died at the beginning of the 13th century the building was less than half complete. It wasn’t until 1260 that it resembled its current form. In the popular imagination, the music of the Magnus Liber is associated with a huge gothic interior.

In actual fact it was heard, to begin with, in a building that had yet to include the crossing and transepts, and where canvas still flapped against wooden scaffolding. Be that as it may, the achievement of these two masters was to set Western European music on the most decisive new path in 1,000 years. Notre Dame can feel justly proud to have been the epicentre of this extraordinary development in musical style.

Organum was not the only 12th-century musical innovation associated with Notre Dame. Congaudeant catholici by Albert of Paris (1146-1177), cantor of the cathedral, is the earliest known polyphonic work in the conductus style, a multi-voiced idiom independent of a pre-existent cantus firmus.

With the 13th century came the ‘motet’, cultivated by figures such as Philippe le Chancelier (Notre Dame’s chancellor from 1217 to 1236) and Guillaume d’Auvergne (canon from 1223, and a future Bishop of Paris). Their compositions (such as Philippe’s Mundus a munditia and Guillaume’s In veritate comperi), though not routinely sung in Notre Dame’s liturgy, belonged to the rich cultural, artistic and spiritual life supported by the cathedral.

The Renaissance

But could the brilliant minds and artists of Notre Dame maintain this giddy pace of innovation and creativity? As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, the flame passed to Italy and Flanders, where the schools of polyphonic writing leading to the motets and masses of the masters of the late Renaissance flourished. England was no less a place of extraordinary innovation in the 15th century, but not part of the same grand project.

Notre Dame regained its musical prestige with the appointment in 1498 of Antoine Brumel as maître de chapelle. In the middle of the 16th century Jacques Hérissant gilded the reputation of the choir school with an increase in chorister numbers (from eight to 12) and in their quality, tempting the Duc de Guise to make off with one of the best of them for his own chapel.

Notre Dame during the 17th century

It was, however, the grand siècle (during the reigns of Louis XIII and XIV, 1610-1715) that witnessed a new and exciting stage in the cathedral’s musical history. From 1625, choir directors were chosen following a rigorous competition, resulting in the appointment of a succession of brilliant composers (we must always remember that this was the primary role of a maître de chapelle), beginning with Henri Frémart, and including Jean Veillot, Pierre Robert and André Campra and, further into the reign of Louis XVI, Jean-François Lalouette and François Leseur.

These composers developed the choral idioms of the time, introducing double-choir textures and transforming the stile antico (the old polyphonic style) into a burgeoning Baroque with instrumental participation. Campra was the first to introduce strings into the music of Notre Dame. Some of these composers enriched their careers with appointments to the Chapelle Royale, or involvement in the activities of the Académie Royale de Musique.

What happened to Notre Dame during the French Revolution?

All this came to an abrupt and brutal end when the revolutionaries converted the cathedral into a ‘Temple of Reason’, handing everybody, priests and musicians alike, their redundancy notices. Nor were the continued upheavals of the 19th century conducive to stable conditions for music-making.

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Things got worse in 1905 when church and state were formally separated, leading to further impoverishments. Abbé Alphonse Renault, maître de chapelle from 1905 to 1925, kept a flickering flame going, spending many of his nights personally copying out the choir’s music to save on costs.

Later in the century, the dedicated work of Père Jehan Revert, maître de chapelle between 1959 and 1991, ensured continuity of practice. However, the corner was only really turned in 1991 with the foundation of the Association Musique Sacrée à Notre-Dame de Paris. Following this initiative, under the guidance of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the cathedral now boasts a revived choir school, various professional choral ensembles and a clearly defined and respected role for music in the liturgy. Once again, musico-liturgical practice in Notre Dame holds its head high.

Notre Dame organ

If, for its choral music, the last 200 years of the Cathedral’s history have been relatively unremarkable, this is not the case for the organ. From the 14th century to our own day there has been a ‘grand orgue’ in the building and someone to play it.

The roll call of its titulaires (organists) may be counted the envy of the world, not least during the years of the late 19th century onwards. While the cathedral’s choral activity descended into parochialism, the fingers of Louis Vierne (titulaire from 1900-37) and Marcel Dupré (1916-20) improvised some of the most magnificent music ever heard in a church.

More recently Pierre Cochereau (titulaire from 1955 to 1984) and Olivier Latry, who was appointed in 1985 in succession to Cochereau, have maintained the stellar reputation of Notre Dame organists. They are part of a tradition of improvisers stretching back 600 years, including Pierre Chabanceau de La Barre (titulaire 1580-1600), Charles Racquet (titulaire 1618-59), Louis-Claude Daquin (titulaire 1755-72) and Claude-Bénigne Balbastre (titulaire 1760-93).

They were well served by magnificent instruments, latterly built by François Thierry (1733), François-Henri Clicquot (1783), and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, with later modifications as and when restorations have taken place. Aristide’s ‘symphonic’ instrument, tonally hand-in-glove with Vierne’s organ symphonies, was inaugurated by César Franck, Camille Saint-Saëns, Charles-Marie Widor and Alexandre Guilmant on 6 March 1868. Oh, to have been there!

The instrument just saved from total destruction is, at heart, still the Cavaillé-Coll of 1868, and it embodies both the majesty and the mystery of the cathedral’s interior. From my own experience, nothing could equal it in the hands of Pierre Cochereau, improvising the Offertoire, the Communion or the Sortie at High Mass – an overwhelming combination of the visceral and the transcendental.

This is the essence of what Notre Dame is now re-discovering in its choral music programme: the transforming power of liturgical music. The Maîtrise’s fledgling activities have been rudely interrupted by fire. But music at Notre-Dame de Paris will doubtless shine anew.

We can have nothing but admiration for those whose task it is to maintain its musical traditions, while they wait for architects, engineers and craftsmen to return the cathedral to its former glory, a rightful home for music-making of the highest order.