On April 15 of this year, as Paris remained in lockdown, one of Notre Dame’s bells rang out to mark a year since the fire that largely destroyed the cathedral’s interior. The bell’s name was Emmanuel, and a grainy still from a video shows what was happening inside the tower.
You can see a big, stationary bell (cloche) with someone standing beside it and pulling the clapper on a rope. Normally, the bells swing back and forth, so this must be a safety precaution in a building that is still being repaired.
Emmanuel is the oldest bell in Notre Dame, and dates from the 17th century. Its note is a low F-sharp. There are ten bells in all; the other nine are 21st-century creations. They were dedicated in 2013, to mark the cathedral’s 850th anniversary. They replaced an ill-assorted group of bells that were themselves 19th-century replacements for bells destroyed in the Revolution. Like the ones they replaced, the new bells all have names: Marie, Gabriel, Anne-Geneviève, Denis, Marcel, Etienne, Benoit-Joseph, Maurice, Jean-Marie. They were placed in the nave before their dedication, allowing the public a close-up look at the variety of designs.
You can see and hear them here: the visuals show them swinging back and forth. To the best of my knowledge, the bells survived the fire along with the bell towers (clochers).
Later, on 25 August 2020, bells across Paris were rung to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in the Second World War.
Tradition has it that all Paris’s bells were rung on that August day in 1944. Perhaps not all, but many churches joined in. According to a story in the book Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, the parishioners of St-Philippe-du-Roule were miffed that their church bells were silent when other churches were ringing theirs. The parish priest, one Canon Jean Muller, had to remind his congregation that, ahem, the church actually had no bells, but this might be a good time to take up a collection for some.
This image, taken before St-Philippe-du-Roule’s roof was engulfed in a huge protective cover, shows only a single bell in a little cage. Ah well, it was wartime and I daresay the parishioners didn’t have much to spare.
The war was hard on bells. Thousands throughout Europe were confiscated and melted down for their component metals (bells are made of bronze, typically four parts copper to one part tin). French bells largely escaped the worst of this plunder. Italy, Austria, Belgium, and eastern European countries fared far worse and lost a precious heritage. Here are some of the bells awaiting their doom in the Glockenfriedhof (bell cemetery) in Hamburg.
But melting down bells was not a German innovation and it was not unique to the Second World War, as Stephen J. Thorne explains:
The practice of confiscating and transforming church bells into tools of war is not new. It was a longstanding tradition of European warfare that artillery commanders had rights over the bells of conquered villages, towns and cities. Napoleon, in particular, relished claiming this right, and added to his war coffers by requiring vanquished cities to buy back their bells. If they could not, the commanding general was entitled to dispose of them as he saw fit. Half the revenue would be his, the other half went to the central treasury. The practice was called “Rachat des cloches,” or “redemption of the bells.”
But the scale of the destruction in the Second World War was unprecedented. It has been estimated that 175,000 bells were confiscated and 150,000 destroyed. Many more were lost or damaged in air raids.
These numbers got me wondering how many bells there are in Paris today. Campanologist and musician Regis Singer did an inventory in 1995 and came up with a total of 878, although he believed that this was an undercount, since many remained in convents to which he was not given access. He thought the real number was closer to 1,000.
That’s a lot of bells. But Regis Singer was thorough and included bells that others might have overlooked.
For example, not all are in churches. The former mairie of the first arrondissement* has a fine bell tower, often mistaken for the tower of the next-door church, St-Germain-l’Auxerrois (the former mairie is on the left in this postcard view).
Not all are in towers. The chapel of St-Yves inside the Cité du Souvenir has five bells hung on the wall of the abutting building, like teacups on cup hooks.
One, on the former chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Jouy, just visible over the wall from the avenue Denfert-Rochereau, is so tiny it looks like a sparrow on the rooftop.
Some swing back and forth and sound as the clapper hits the inside; some are stationary and are hit with a tapper (typical of bells that mark time in clocks). Some are operated manually; others electronically.
Notre Dame’s Emmanuel isn’t the oldest bell – that honour belongs to the church of St-Merri, which has a 14th-century bell. Saint-Severin has one dating from the 15th century. The biggest in Paris, indeed in all of France, is Savoyarde, in Sacré-Coeur, weighing in at 19 tonnes. It could use some protection from the local pigeons.
Paris has only two carillons. The carillon, a set of bells used to play melodies, either manually from an oversized keyboard or electronically from a regular keyboard, is largely a northern French and Flemish tradition. Carillons may have as many as 40 bells. If you have seen the movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (2008), filmed in Bergues in northern France, you will remember the scene in the bell tower.
One of the two carillons in Paris is in the belfry beside the mairie of the first arrondissement (shown above) and the other is in the unusual church of Sainte-Odile in the 17th arrondissement, built in the 1940s. Sainte-Odile’s website proclaims that is has the only hand-operated carillon in Paris (the one at the former mairie is presumably operated electrically).
Although Paris has a wealth of bells, they are heard less than they used to be. A century ago, you would hear the Angelus early in the morning, at noon, and at dusk (usually three sets of nine peals each time). A few churches still ring the Angelus at noon and dusk, but the early morning set does not square with modern lifestyles. In 1995, Regis Singer commented sardonically that Parisians express no objections to the noise of sirens, alarms, or traffic, but claim to be disturbed by the bells, and in the 1990s demanded that the early-morning Angelus tradition be discontinued. Churches that do still ring bells in the morning do it at 9 a.m. rather than the traditional 6 or 7 a.m.
Personally, I can’t understand why anyone would want to silence bells. Norman and I lived for four years beside St. James Cathedral in Toronto, which has a full peal of English-style bells for change-ringing** as well as bells that toll the hours, half-hours, and quarter-hours throughout the day (although not at night). When we were married in the cathedral, I remember the bells ringing out as I entered the church and the way it made me feel as if my feet weren’t quite touching the ground. And for our recessional, we chose the finale of the first organ symphony by the blind composer Louis Vierne, which mimics the sound of bells.
Bells permeate French music. Debussy, Ravel, Bizet, and Massenet also wrote works that use the sounds of bells. Recently, after listening to a recorded piano concert in Paris by Jean Dubé, I bought his CD “Cloches” which features these composers and others. I am listening to it now, as I write.
Bells recall us to ourselves. When we lose them, we lose something that draws us together. I hope the bells of Paris will continue to sound, to mark the hours and the seasons, in celebration and grief and danger, to ring in better times than those we are living through now.
Text by Philippa Campsie. Images of St-Philippe-du-Roule, Ste-Odile, and Notre-Dame-de-Jouy from Google Street View; pictures of the dedication of Notre Dame’s bells, the Glockenfriedhof, St-Yves, and Savoyarde from Wikipedia. Postcards from our collection.
* This building is no longer used as a mairie. The four innermost arrondissements of Paris have merged administratively, and together use what was originally the mairie of the third arrondissement; the other three buildings have been given new functions.
** Change-ringing is a world unto itself and I would not presume to describe it in a footnote. But here is an overview.