An exaltation of bells

“Arrived in the lofty cage of the bells, Quasimodo gazed for some time with a sorrowful shake of the head at his six singing birds, as if he mourned over something alien that had come between him and his old loves…”

“…But when he had set them going, when he felt the whole cluster of bells move under his hands, when he saw – for he could not hear it – the palpitating octave ascending and descending in that enormous diapason, like a bird fluttering from bough to bough – when the demon of music, with his dazzling shower of stretti, trills, and arpeggios, had taken possession of the poor deaf creature, then he became happy once more, he forgot his former woes, and as the weight lifted from his heart his face lit up with joy.”

The cathedral apart, Quasimodo is the brooding presence in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) from whose Book VII the above quotation is taken. The cathedral bells are his only friends, each with a distinct personality. Of all the bells at Notre Dame, the grandest and lowest in pitch is the bourdon bell, named Emmanuel, located in the South Tower. Cast in 1685 and weighing just over 13 tons, it tolls to mark the hours of the day and for State occasions.

In Hugo’s story, Quasimodo was born with a huge wart covering his right eye and a severely hunched back. Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, found him in the cathedral at the spot where orphans and unwanted children were customarily abandoned. It was on Quasimodo Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, so-called from the Latin text of the traditional Introit for that day, which begins “Quasi modo geniti infantes…” (“Like newborn babes…”, from 1 Peter 2:2). Frollo, who is the villain of the piece, adopts the baby and brings him up to be the bell-ringer of the Cathedral. The stentorian clanging of the bells turns Quasimodo deaf.

For many, little is more evocative than the sound of bells, from the grandest of cathedrals on high days and holidays to the simplest village church at weddings and funerals. Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Bells (1849) is another well-known literary evocation, set to music in a choral symphony by Sergei Rachmaninov (1913). Its four movements depict “The Silver Sleigh Bells”, “The Mellow Wedding Bells”, “The Loud Alarum Bells”, and “The Mournful Iron Bells”. Earlier Gustav Mahler used sleigh bells in the first movement of his fourth symphony (1901), but, oddly, no composer has written a symphony in which bells are the chief protagonists.

It was always thought that Quasimodo was a purely literary invention of Hugo, but in 2010 Adrian Glew, an archivist at London’s Tate Gallery, announced the discovery of a real-life person who was at Notre Dame during the 1820s. The evidence is contained in the memoirs of one Henry Sibson, a 19th-century British sculptor who also worked at Notre Dame at around the time Hugo was writing the novel.

In one entry, Sibson notes, “The government had given orders for the repairing of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and it was now in progress … I applied at the Government studios, where they were executing the large figures and here I met with a Mons. Trajan, a most worthy, fatherly and amiable man as ever existed – he was the carver under the Government sculptor whose name I forget as I had no intercourse with him, all that I know is that he was humpbacked and he did not like to mix with carvers.”

No one seems to know the name of this sculptor, but perhaps, like Quasimodo, and presumably Victor Hugo, he, too, exalted at the sound of the cathedral’s bells.

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