Monday, August 26, 2013

“Ten thousand brazen voices”

And if you would receive an impression from the old city which the modern one can never give you, climb, some holiday morning, say at sunrise on Easter or Whitsunday, —climb to some high point whence you overlook the whole town, and listen to the call of the chimes.

See, at a signal from the sky, — for it is the sun that gives it, —those countless churches quiver simultaneously. At first a scattered tolling passes from church to church, as when musicians give notice that they are about to begin. Then, all at once, see, —for at certain moments it seems as if the ear had also its vision, —see as it were a column of sound, a vapour of harmony rise at one and the same moment from every tower. At first the vibrations of each bell ascend straight, pure, and as it were apart from the rest, into the clear morning sky ; then, little by little, as they increase, they melt into one another, are blended, united, and combined into one magnificent harmony. It ceases to be anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly set loose from countless spires, floating, undulating, bounding, whirling over the city, and prolonging the deafening circle of its oscillations far beyond the horizon.

Yet that sea of harmonies is not a chaos. Deep and wide as it may be, it has not lost its transparency ; you may see each group of notes, as it escapes from the several chimes of bells, take its own meandering course. You may follow the dialogue, by turns solemn and shrill, between the small bell and the big bell ; you may see the octaves bound from spire to spire ; you watch them spring winged, light, and sibilant from the silver bell, fall maimed and halting from the wooden bell ; you admire in their midst the rich gamut perpetually running up and down the seven bells of Saint-Eustache ; you behold quick, clear notes dart through the whole in three or four luminous zig-zags, and then vanish like lightning flashes. Yonder is the Abbey of Saint-Martin, shrill and cracked of voice ; here is the surly, ominous voice of the Bastille ; at the other end the great tower of the Louvre, with its counter- tenor. The royal peal of the Palace flings resplendent trills on every hand, without a pause ; and upon them fall at regular intervals dull strokes from the belfry of Notre-Dame, which strike sparks from them as the hammer from the anvil. At intervals you see passing tones of every form, coming from the triple peal of Saint-Germain des Pres. Then again, from time to time this mass of sublime sounds half opens and makes way for the stretto of the Ave-Maria, which twinkles and flashes like a starry plume. Below, in the very heart of the harmony, you vaguely catch the inner music of the churches as it escapes through the vibrating pores of their vaulted roofs. Certainly, this is an opera worth hearing.

Usually, the noise which rises up from Paris by day is the talking of the city ; by night, it is the breathing of the city ; but this, this is the singing of the city. Hearken then to this tutti of the steeples ; over all diffuse the murmur of half a million men, the never-ending murmur of the river, the endless sighing of the wind, the grave and distant quartet of the four forests ranged upon the hills in the horizon like huge organ- cases ; drown, as in a demi-tint, all that would otherwise be too harsh and shrill in the central chime, —and then say if you know of anything on earth richer, more joyous, more mellow, more enchanting than this tumult of bells and chimes ; than this furnace of music ; than these ten thousand brazen voices singing together through stone flutes three hundred feet in length ; than this city which is but an orchestra ; than this symphony which roars like a tempest

—Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831

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