Heir to a long and prestigious liturgical and musical tradition, the cathedral aims to preserve, maintain and enhance this treasury collected over the centuries, as described in the parables of the Gospel (Matthew 25:14-30).
Here, music is one with the architecture to echo the glory of God. Here, liturgy must more than anywhere else represent the identity of the Church. Here, music is an experience of faith. The diocesans of Paris, regular visitors to the cathedral, millions of anonymous guests, this multitude “that no one could count” (Revelation 7:9) must be able to understand that the One celebrated here is the almighty God who is close to His people, “God of glory and of majesty (Roman Canon).
The 12th century builders’ intuition and fervour was quickly translated into music to make this vast stone vessel resonate in perfect harmony with divine praise. Of course, the music was always influenced by its time, to such a point that it often came to symbolise an era for posterity, but it was always conceived of as a service. Just like statues fix the expressions of prayer in time, offering an image of the mystical Church, just like rays of light shining through stained glass conveys the image of heaven on earth, music makes it move and resonate. It stirs the building and the people within it. Music instantaneously, yet lastingly, expresses the unwarranted nature of pure praise.
A cathedral is not just another church. It is the bishop’s seat and the mother-church of a diocese. The liturgy celebrated there by the bishop, alongside his priests and his deacons, with all of his people, conveys the perfect vision of what the Church is. In the same way, its music perfectly suits its rites. In addition, at Notre-Dame, like at other cathedrals, a rich and influential chapter of canons guaranteed the presence of remarkable musicians throughout the ages. Still today, thanks to the Association for Holy Music at Notre-Dame de Paris and to professional musicians, liturgy and music, which are intimately connected, form a matrix, and not only for the Paris diocese. It extends beyond Paris through now-daily televised broadcasts of Vespers services as well as broadcasts of other masses and major national events.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) met to undertake major restorations to Catholic liturgy: many significant changes went along with the reform, the most noteworthy being the transition to using vernacular languages in readings and the possibility of using them in song (in spite of the reaffirmed primacy of Gregorian chants). At Notre-Dame, Monsignor Jehan Revert, who was Cantor Emeritus at the time, managed this evolution with the sensibility of a true pastor and with solid musical taste. He took an active interest in the cathedral’s longstanding musical tradition and in the genius of the site, staying true to its rich musical heritage while offering the assembly melodies that could hold up in such a vast building. Even today during the services, ancient and contemporary polyphonies blend together, as do organ pieces and improvisations, group songs and Gregorian chants, offering everyone times for listening and for participation, both of which are part of the dialogue that is faith.
At the dawn of the 21st century, it is a challenge to bring liturgy and music together in such a prestigious and popular cathedral.
It means celebrating the rites of the Church with as much dignity and fairness as possible in a given place, using the music that best suits its rites and its site.
It is a constant effort to revisit the treasure of tradition while reinventing it and making it last. The cathedral’s musicians are driven to compose masses, pieces, and psalmodies as their illustrious predecessors did, carrying on their creation and working towards the Church’s vitality,
expressing God’s unfathomable mystery through what is Beautiful, through aesthetic experience, offering it to today’s women and men, either through liturgical celebrations, times for true Dialogue and Alliance, or through thematic concerts according to the liturgical schedule.