Notre Dame, the Paris School and Beyond

The recent fire in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris reminded me of the importance of this place in the history of western music. Notre Dame has served as a hot-bed of musical experimentation and growth, as far back as the 12th Century during the formation of the Paris School. Two notable composers drove the development of choral music during this time: Leonin (fl. 1150’s until his death ca. 1201) and his student Perotin (ca. 1160 - ca. 1230).

Vocal music had relied greatly on the purity and expressiveness of a single melodic line, mostly in the form of Plainchant (or Gregorian Chant). Plainchant developed a few hundred years earlier in the 9th and 10th Centuries in western and central Europe, often credited to Pope Gregory I — but it more likely developed as a synthesis of Roman and Gallican chant styles. One of my favorite chants is Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea), a tribute to the Virgin Mary and often sung around Easter.

Composers began to later incorporate a second melodic line as a very basic shadow line to the chant to provide interest and more texture (known as basic ‘organum’). That’s where the Paris School, Leonin and Perotin enter the scene, with the development of Organum Duplum (or basic two-part writing). This example of Leonin’s Pascha Nostrum is a great example of the incorporation of a second extended line alongside a beautiful melismatic line — with the two parts joining in unison for the chant later on.

Leonin’s great contribution to the development of multi-linear music was his Magnus Liber Organi (or Great Book of Organum) which contains a series of organums that span the entire church calendar.

Perotin later added to this literature with his own revised version of Leonin’s Magnus Liber and indeed took Leonin’s work considerably further, being the first composer (so I believe) to write three and four-part music. Check out this performance of Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes.

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While maintaining the longer note values as a grounding presence, there’s considerably more interplay between the other three voices — light years ahead of the music of the previous generation! Perotin had then opened the door to the further development of multi-part vocal writing over the next few centuries. One of my favorite Medieval composers who assumed the mantel from the work of Leonin and Perotin was the Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474). Here is the beginning of Dufay’s setting of Ave Maris Stella.

All roads led to Paris and Notre Dame in the early to mid Medieval times and then gradually reached out to much of Europe in the following centuries, forming the substance of so much of the music which was to come.

Notre Dame was also front and center in the flowering of French organ music in the later 19th and 20th Centuries. Louis Vierne (1870-1937) spent thirty-seven years as organist at Notre Dame, starting in 1900, and contributed mightily to the repertoire for the organ. He even died while playing his 1750th organ recital in this cathedral. What a way to go! His music tends to be highly idiomatic for the organ and quite inventive.

Here is Olivier Latry playing Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster on the Notre Dame Cathedrale organ. Vierne premiered this work in 1929 on the same organ.

I’m truly grateful that this instrument was saved. Some portions of it date from the 14th Century. Living history! Cheers!