New Bells Chime With Modern Pitch At Notre Dame Cathedral

For its 850th anniversary, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is getting new bells. Nearly all of its bells date from an 1856 renovation. Experts say the 19th century bells toll off key. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports the new bells will join one original bell, known as Emmanuel, which remains in the south tower.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. This year, the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is marking a really big anniversary. It's turning 850 years old. And what do you get a cathedral celebrating such a remarkable birthday? New bells. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went to hear those new bells ring for the first time this weekend and she brings this postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Notre Dame's new bells pealed for the first time Saturday evening, ringing in a harmony not heard since the French Revolution. Thousands of people turned out to hear them, packing the square in front of the cathedral and lining the bridges over the Seine River. Parisian Huguette de Villers was among them.

HUGUETTE DE VILLERS: (Through Translator) It's very moving because we're all participating in the 850th anniversary of the church. But what makes it so special is that we saw these bells and we touched them. So, they belong to us now.

BEARDSLEY: De Villers came to see the new bells when they were on display in the nave of the cathedral for three weeks in February. That's also where I met up with campanologue, or bell expert, Regis Singer who supervised Notre Dame's bell project. Singer first tells me why the old bells had to be replaced.

REGIS SINGER: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: He says when the French Revolution began they melted the original bells down for cannons and money, except for one. In 1856, four new bells were made, but they were cast of poor-quality cannon metal and they were the wrong shape and size. They rang totally off key, he says.

SINGER: (Through Translator) So, for the 850th anniversary of the cathedral, we wanted to reconstitute the ringing sound as it existed in the ancien regime, just before the revolution. We were able to do this by studying the bells in the church archives, all the way back to the 1300s. We could see their weight, thickness and diameter. And with these figures we were able to establish what they must have sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

BEARDSLEY: Singer says unlike the old bells, each new bell is tuned perfectly and they've all been tuned to ring in harmony with the cathedral's only original bell, Emmanuel, the biggest bell, cast in 1686. Each new bell has a name - Jean-Marie, Maurice, Anne-Genevieve, Gabriel - and a unique design. The massive bronze castings weigh a total of 23 tons. A crowd gathered around Singer as he pulled out his tuning forks to demonstrate the bells' acoustics.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

BEARDSLEY: Putting his tuning forks against the bell named Denis, Singer taps it with a tiny mallet. Listen, he says, this is a perfect C sharp.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

SINGER: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: That's the predominate note, says Singer, but within it there are five other tones. The next is a mi minor. Can you hear it, he asks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

SINGER: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

BEARDSLEY: Eight of the nine new bells, now in the north tower, were cast by a French foundry. Marie, the ninth new bell, weighs six tons and now hangs with Emmanuel in the south tower. She was cast at a foundry in the Netherlands because, as Singer puts it, Notre Dame is European now. The project cost a little over $3 million and was financed by private donations. More than a million people came to see and touch the bells when they were on display.

CATHERINE MOORE: Yeah. (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Visitors, like Catherine Moore, from England, realized they were witnessing a special moment.

MOORE: They're only here for a short time. And it feels like quite a historic moment before they go up into the tower for hundreds of years. You know, the opportunity to see them at close proximity and to appreciate how different they all are one from the other in terms of their decoration. They're rather a beautiful sight to see.

BEARDSLEY: As for Notre Dame's old bells, they won't be forgotten. City officials are looking for a place to exhibit them. The bells may have rung off key and they're ugly, but they tolled for the liberation of Paris, making them forever a part of the city's history. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Notre Dame de Paris.

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