From the episcopal school to the choir school

During the Ars Antiqua, the transition period between the Notre-Dame school and the Ars Nova, from the middle of the 8th century to 1320, the Paris cathedral lost its musical supremacy. Polyphony had become established all over Europe and other musical centres were showing much more vigour. The greed of a section of the Paris clergy, the strained relations it maintained with King Philip the Fair, the lack of charismatic figures and the reticence about bringing on board renowned musicians were all partly to blame for this sudden slowdown. Indirectly, the Sorbonne contributed to the revival of music at Notre-Dame. The renown and independence gained by the university had inflicted a fatal blow on the teaching of theology at Notre-Dame. The episcopal school refocused on the learning of the liturgy, placing more emphasis on a choir school. In the 14th century, the teaching was completely reorganised. The artistic staff at Notre-Dame had, at that time, eight choir children and seventeen or eighteen men. Jean de Gerson (1363-1429), the renowned cathedral chancellor, drafted the first internal school rules in 1408, Doctrina pro pueris Ecclesiæ Parisiensis (Doctrine for the children of the Church of Paris. Here he wrote, among other writings, that "the community of children dedicated to the service of God is the most beautiful and fruitful part of the Church". This set of rules, as well as another on the canon drawn up in 1410, had force of law right up until the lay reform of 1807. It restricted the children to a near-monastic lifestyle. It also abolished the descant, in favour of the plainchant and the counterpoint.

The first masters of music appeared in the 14th century and they took over from the cantors who, up to that time, had provided musical teaching. At the outset, these masters were burdened with all kinds of administrative responsibilities; but in 1632, the care and feeding of the young residents was finally handed over to two intendants chosen from among the canons.

Jacques de Villejuif, appointed in 1356, was the first known master of music. The following year, a document speaks for the first time of the presence of a permanent organ. This instrument had already been in existence for several decades, as the first known tenured organist, Jean de Bruges, was documented as early as 1334. Following this, the name of Renaud de Reims appears in the writings as tenured organist from 1392 to 1415, and it was under his impetus that the first organ was built at the back of the nave, the work of Frédéric Schambantz.

Pierre Chabanceau de La Barre (tenured organist from 1580 to 1600) was heralded, in his own lifetime, as the equal of Titelouze, but not a single organ score written by his hand survives to this day. Of all the earliest Notre-Dame organists, he is the only one who still enjoys a degree of fame to this day. The problem is that, for a long time, these often excellent musicians were limited to the unsatisfactory role of briefly improvising between the verses sung by the choir or the cantors. It was the only the masters of music from the master school who were called upon to compose the most memorable sections - motets, psalms and choral masses.

These masters of music were afforded more and more prestige. In 1498, change was in the air however with the appointment of Antoine Brumel: the future chapel master of the Duke of Ferrara brought with him the latest developments in Franco-Flemish polyphony. His tenure was brief (two years) but distinguished. In 1507, the Cambraisian Louis Vanpulaer followed in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Around 1550, Jacques Hérissant raised the number of novices to twelve. The reputation of the young Notre-Dame singers was such that when, in 1576, a henchman of the Duke of Guise made a daring attempt to kidnap a young scholar Ruffin, with a beautiful voice, he found himself on the receiving end of a good beating. (In 1628, there was a dispute between Louis 13th and the Chapter over the child Michel Preux, on loan to the Louvre Chapel and who His Majesty was somewhat late in returning).

After the troubled times of the League, Abraham Blondet brought his brilliance to the choir school. In 1606, he composed a musical tragedy on the life and martyrdom of Saint Cécile, La Céciliade and had the work performed by his students to great success.

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