Notre Dame Cathedral: The Birthplace Of Music As We Know It Today

Apr 16, 2019

Had Notre Dame Cathedral actually burned to the ground in yesterday's devastating fire, we would have lost one of the architectural wonders of the Western world – and so much more. We would have lost the locus of striking musical innovations that helped make music – whether Beethoven's symphonies or Beyoncé's latest hit – what it is today.

So had there not been Notre Dame polyphony, would there be today the high lonesome of country music? Would we today enjoy squeezing into a barbershop quartet's corset of tight harmonies? Would Adele or Mariah Carey be able to dazzle us with their florid vocal stylings? Would Beyoncé have backup singers?

Maybe. But also maybe not.

The French abbot Suger, one of the architectural innovators of the 1100s – the century during which construction began on Notre Dame – lived and worked by his dictum “from material to the immaterial.” 

The basic idea was that the design of a church could make space sacred and transcendant, and this philosophy played out structurally in Gothic architecture, a supreme example of which is Notre Dame.

During the cathedral’s construction, other cultural innovations, including musical ones, also emerged around Notre Dame in the 1100s and 1200s.

Today, we speak of the Notre Dame School as the principal incubator of sacred polyphony, sacred music performed by choirs singing not just a single Gregorian chant melody, but embellishments of chant tunes in multiple voice parts.

After The Fire, What About Notre Dame's Organ?

The new musical genre of florid organum emerged from the Notre Dame School. In florid organum singers decorate Gregorian chant melodies with figuration above them in an effort to take church music into higher realms of spiritual experience.

Most of the names of the creators of Notre Dame polyphony are unknown today. Léonin and Pérotin are the only two names historical documents certainly connect with the Notre Dame School.

Not much is known about either Léonin or Pérotin, but they were likely born in the mid-1100s, somewhere in France.

An English student at Notre Dame Cathedral known today as Anonymous IV credits Léonin as the composer of the Magnus Liber Organi – the Great Book of Organum – which contains a repository of music composed by Léonin, Pérotin and possibly other unnamed musicians of the Notre Dame School specifically to be sung at the cathedral.

Here is Léonin’s two-part organum Viderunt omnes (“All the ends of the earth have seen”), performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London:

Though the musicians of the Notre Dame School didn't think of the voices they added to Gregorian chant melodies as harmony in the same sense we consider harmony today, what they did with Gregorian chant tunes was, essentially, to harmonize them.

So had there not been Notre Dame polyphony, would there be today the high lonesome of country music? Would we today enjoy squeezing into a barbershop quartet's corset of tight harmonies? Would Adele or Mariah Carey be able to dazzle us with their florid vocal stylings? Would Beyoncé have backup singers?

Maybe. But also maybe not.

Now that the flames and smoke have subsided at Notre Dame, we can look back through the fog of centuries and see that the cathedral is much more than a remarkable piece of architecture.

It is history that lives on in the voices of its magnificent bells, so much a part of the personality of Paris that they have names – Antoinette-Charlotte, Hyacinthe-Jeanne, the zaftig Angelique-Francoise – in the voices of everyone who sings today, especially those who sing the remarkable repertoire of Notre Dame polyphony, the music that made music what we know it to be.