Reflections on the Notre-Dame Cathedral Fire
By George Lepauw
Paris, April 23, 2019
The Notre-Dame Cathedral fire was a shock that has made me think about what we, as a civilization, value most, as well as what we should, perhaps, value most. There has been a huge outpouring of financial support to rebuild the cathedral, with already a lot more than one billion euros raised in a matter of days, an unprecedented feat for this kind of event. This, however, against the backdrop of a divided country (similar to what the world is experiencing pretty much everywhere), and of the “gilet jaune” (or “yellow vest”) protest movement that was launched last November all around France. Just this past Saturday, only five days after the Notre-Dame disaster, protesters railed against the supposed selfishness and duplicity of major donors and the government who seem happy to give away millions to repair an old cathedral, but (it is claimed) will not do anything for tax relief or charitable causes to help feed and lodge the homeless, fix hospitals, increase funds for social services, unemployment benefits, vocational training, and education. This event has provoked an incendiary debate, and indeed a necessary debate about how we structure our society and what we consider to be our priorities. While this directly concerns French society, it is a debate valuable to all, and can be a point of departure for new ideas and could perhaps help wind better ties in our fractured societies. Unfortunately, the idea of constructive and respectful discourse in France, as it is also in the United States and the United Kingdom, is a challenging concept which is causing our democracies to suffer.
On Monday, April 15th, at 7pm, I was in the attic of a 13th century cistercian college built on Paris’ Left Bank, the “College des Bernardins”, when I looked out the windows and saw, on this beautiful Spring Monday, a gorgeous plume of fast moving smoke, altering the rays of the setting sun. At first I thought that there must be a smokestack nearby, but I could not find one in my memory of this central Paris neighborhood. Maybe it was fire smoke, but it was not dark; rather, I saw whitish streams of yellows, reds, and blues. What a surprising feast for the eyes! Then the notifications starting popping up on my smartphone, and I immediately understood where the smoke was coming from, as my heart rate sped up: Notre-Dame, the oldest symbol of our eternal Paris, was on fire.
How bad could it be? This was an 853 year old cathedral built of stone!
Just an hour before, I had walked by it, admiring its famous contour on the pale blue sky. I had also noticed people walking along the recently built, impressive scaffoldings around the central steeple, all the way up in the sky. I wanted to take some photos, because the cathedral looked different and somewhat modernist with its many-layered temporary metallic platforms, but I figured I would come back and take the time to do so another day, since I was in a hurry just then. This view had always been my favorite, from the back, slightly lesser known side of the edifice. It was, to me, the more personal, human side of the monument, less imposing than its official front, with its two, (nonetheless) beautiful towers. I liked seeing the graceful buttresses hold the whole together. I liked seeing the rounded shapes of the arches, the curve of the nave at that end, the slant and time-colored gray-green of the lead roof.
Notre-Dame is an omni-presence in a Parisian life. Religion is not a necessary component to one’s appreciation for, and need for, the cathedral of Notre-Dame. While Paris was populated by the Gaul tribe of the Parisii before the Roman occupation, and while Paris was a thriving commercial town on the Seine River for hundreds of years during the Gallo-Roman period and then the Frankish conquests of the period before and following Charlemagne’s momentous reign, the importance of Paris was sealed with the construction of the Cathedral in the 13th century. Built upon the site of what was already the largest church in France, the church of “Saint-Etienne” which had replaced a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter on the central river island called Ile de la Cité, naturally protected on both sides against any attack, the cathedral anchors Paris at its most historical point.
The glory of this cathedral, its architectural splendor, its height, width, and length, and its construction cost, are all markers of the importance of Paris as a city in these late Middle-Ages. It marks a certain period of enlightenment. Hundreds of years before the Eiffel Tower rose up and steel became the driving force behind the skyscraper revolution, a cathedral was a major statement of human ingenuity and sky-high ambitions. Notre-Dame has been a constant in French and European politics, in representations of Paris, in art, literature, in film, in romance, and more. Paris today looks very little like it did when the cathedral went up, as most of the buildings that surround the cathedral today and throughout the city were built after the 17th century and especially during the 19th century. Yet, the cathedral has stood strong as a witness to all of the changes Paris has lived through.
When I was growing up in Paris, we could still drive right by the front of the cathedral, which was blackened by centuries of pollution. By the year 2000, it had been cleaned up and cars had been diverted. I witnessed it with yearslong scaffolding, revealing, when it came down, the facade’s incredibly, shockingly bright stone, appearing as new as when it was first built. I occasionally stepped inside for visits, on my own for self-reflection, or with friends to whom I would show Paris. I also climbed the cathedral’s towers, saw its impressive bells, its strong wood beams under its roof, and admired its legendary gargoyles up close. I always thought it was the very best place to look out at the entire Parisian landscape. How many times have I walked by each side of the cathedral, admiring its countless details? How many times have I been in front of it, almost all alone, in the middle of the night after the tourist rushes, lying or sitting on the ground at its feet and looking up at its three mystical doors, under the stars? It is a place of wonder, indeed, for me, as it has been for millions of people throughout history.
Stepping out of the College des Bernardins Monday night, and walking to the river and onto the Pont de la Tournelle, the bridge where the statue of Paris’ patron saint, Sainte-Genevieve, watches over the flowing waters welcoming visitors, I was awed by the deafening silence surrounding me despite being in the midst of thousands of people filling the sidewalks, the streets, the bridges, the rooftops. Even before I was able to see the blazing cathedral, it was the absence of the usual city sounds that struck me: no traffic, no music, no talking, none of the usual humdrum. Nothing. It felt as though I myself had lost my hearing, for an instant. I could almost hear the crackling of the burning millennial wood… I made my way through the standstill crowd to the middle of the bridge and turned my eyes toward the Ile de la Cité.
Flames so high, they were licking the sky. A new steeple of fire had replaced and surpassed the 93 meter high addition built by 19th century architect, Viollet-le-Duc, which had burnt and tumbled into the cathedral nave minutes before I arrived to witness the debacle myself.
Imagine that for a moment, seeing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame burning.
It was, until that very moment, unimaginable.
In fact, we cannot wrap our brains around such traumatic concepts. Rome burning? Long enough ago it feels like a quaint moment in history. London burning? Well, that was the risk of building a wooden city, and a not-so-unusual 17th century occurence. Chicago burning? A necessary step toward becoming the soaring city it is today. Paris burning? It has never happened. Indeed, Paris is one of few cities that has never been consumed by fire. Urban planning in Paris has never been accidental.
Seeing those flames on Notre-Dame, however, knowing there was a risk the entire edifice could literally crumble to the ground under the stress of fire and heat (800 degrees celsius!), it became clear that the beauty of Paris, and its well-known skyline, were not to be taken for granted. If the cathedral can burn and crumble, so can any other iconic part of Paris, or anywhere else. I had walked by the cathedral and had admired its steeple once more just an hour before it was to burn and disappear forever. Had I known it was its last hour I would definitely have taken my camera out and snapped those pictures. But I am glad I nevertheless looked with pleasure at the cathedral before tragedy hit. It is a lesson to make the most of every moment, no matter how fleeting! It is also a lesson never to take beauty, wonder, creativity, and difficult feats, for granted.
It reminds us that every aspect of this entire world is fleeting in the eyes of the universe. The conditions that make life on Earth possible will not last forever. We already know that this planet is doomed, even if it takes millions of years more before it is finally consumed. Yet, the Earth has prospered, and we humans have constantly reached far beyond our own initial capacities, not only figuring out how to survive as a species, but feeling moved by our emotions and our surroundings to make beautiful things. Hence was born Art. Why was a cathedral made to look beautiful, when it could simply be made to be big? And while this precise debate is still raging in philosophical terms, as a people we clearly appreciate beauty, and are moved by it. We even end up finding beauty in what may at first be made to be only practical, such as Mies van der Rohe’s “skin and bones” architecture.
The real fragility of beauty, despite what we might think of as immutable (Notre-Dame, the Twin Towers, Venice…), is a reminder that destruction is easy, but construction is hard and takes a lot longer. This idea reaches beyond the physical: great novels are hard to write, great paintings are hard to make, complex science is hard to conceive of, philosophies are hard to construct, and good political systems are hard to create.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral fire, and our emotional response to it, is a stark reminder that there are a lot more cathedrals in our hearts than we realize. It is also a reminder that we must care for our heritage, but also for each other. A cathedral like this, with its history in the heart of Paris, known from representations by most people around the world just like the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, is meant to bring people together. Its construction by thousands of artisans, its religious purpose, but also its value as a great work of art and as a comforting presence for all actually transcends religion. It is my hope that the efforts that are being deployed now to save and preserve it for future centuries will not only impact the physical cathedral for the better, but will also be an opportunity to help heal divisions within our society, by bringing to the fore the idea that major joint efforts can benefit us all. This is what politics should be about: a meaningful construction for the common good, where all debate, however raging it may be at times, never loses sight of its purpose to do good for the people.
Notre-Dame was nearly slated for destruction in the 1820s, as it was in a terrible state of disrepair already then, after centuries of neglect and the violence perpetrated upon it during the French Revolution when it was, at one point, renamed the “Temple of Reason”. Victor Hugo, who greatly admired the cathedral, decided to write his now-famous novel, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” (Notre-Dame de Paris in French, published in 1831), to help renew interest in the cathedral. It went a long way in swaying the public, and political opinion, in supporting a long and costly renovation of the edifice, which helped it reach our century. Indeed, “when there is a will, there is a way.”
As a musician and cultural activist, I must also add that music, of course, is a prime example of an art that is hard (and costly) to make, especially when it transcends individual cultures and reaches across decades or centuries, inspiring people far away from its point of origin in time and space. But much like the work it takes for us to maintain old and beautiful buildings, caring for them and sometimes adapting them so that they will live on until the next generation, so too the great music of the past needs care, attention, and adaptation, to continue its life amongst us as it travels through space and time. To me, J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which I recently recorded (www.bach48.com/redesign), is an example of one such individual “cathedral” that warrants continued attention from musicians and listeners, to keep inspiring people today, even if we feel, like we did too casually for Notre-Dame, that it is already well-enough appreciated and that, in any case, “it is here to stay”. But one never really knows this.
This is also why I am leading, via the International Beethoven Project non-profit organization (www.internationalbeethovenproject.com), a major effort to celebrate Beethoven in 2020, on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Indeed, even well-known artists are at risk of being mis-appreciated, and we can lose sight of what about their work is important, not simply in historical terms but to our own contemporary experience of the world. It is why I believe in the value of history, not only because it helps us understand where we come from, but more importantly because it guides us as we move forward, and because the future does not exist without the past. Keeping up this constant conversation, across time and space, is a balancing act which benefits all of us.
In the same way that the Notre-Dame Cathedral requires constant investment, and more now than ever, keeping up our musical culture is expensive too: symphony halls, operas, festivals, ensembles, music schools, and so forth. Yet, it is an investment well-spent. Culture holds us together, in a world that is too frequently breaking up.
Our lives, and these masterworks, whatever shape they take, are more fragile than we think. We must all work together to preserve, adapt, and renew our cultural heritage, as much as we must work toward a better world and build new “constructions” whose positive impact will outlive us across all fields, from art to science to politics. Yes, let’s rebuild the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, it is truly worth every cent. But by doing so, let us also learn to see the greater purpose of this project, and continue to appreciate and make things of beauty for the ultimate benefit of humanity, and of each one of us.