My wife Michelle and I spent a few days in France on our honeymoon. One of the most intellectually exciting and musical moments came to us at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Construction of the church began in 1163 and Notre Dame played a role in the evolution of Gregorian Chant (10th Century) into Renaissance (14th Century) and eventually into music as we know it today. The high ceilings and cool stone architecture made it the acoustic gem of the era, appealing to the fundamentals of not only our deepest beliefs, but also the root of all sound.
It was a dark and not-so-stormy night; no rain. The church was about to close and the crowd had dwindled to just a few stragglers. We decided to give the legendary acoustics a test run.
I was a tenor in my youth able to hit high A’s on a good day, but time relegated me to baritone. Michelle, a torch singer from years gone by, has a deep mezzo vocabulary. We decided that between us we had the makings of some serious fundamentals – all in the key of G.
I started with my best note, a G on the 2nd harmonic. It was low enough but it needed some work to meld itself into the nooks and crannies of the stone walls. After a minute, and several much-needed deep breaths, Michelle joined in with a D on the 3rd harmonic. We took our time to work on pitch and tone and after another minute or so we found each other. Then it happened!
From the ceiling came a hint of the major third (B), the 5th harmonic, but it disappeared quickly. We locked eyes and focused on the task at hand – pitch and tone, pitch and tone. Then it came back, this time with a taste of the 4th harmonic, the octave above my low G.
By now we were breathing together in slow drawn out phrases of about six seconds each, grabbing quick breaths and starting new notes before the old ones had a chance to dissipate. Our open-fifth drone began to feed upon itself and as the faux chorus-effect kicked in, the heavens erupted in a rainbow of new notes.
With the major third (5th harmonic) and tonic (4th harmonic) solidified, the D one octave above Michelle (6th harmonic) began to resonate. And then beyond belief, the minor seventh (F) appeared!
From the 12th century, the 7th harmonic became the basis for the next 500 years of western music evolution. The augmented 4th relationship between the third of the chord (B) and the minor seventh (F) creates the harmonic tension inherent in the cycle of fifths and all secondary-dominant chord progressions. Referred to by the Renaissance-era church as the “devil in music” (perhaps it lead to dancing?), the augmented 4th is the foundation of the tension-release forward motion found in the baroque, classical, romantic, 20th century, jazz and pop styles.
Pitch and tone, pitch and tone – it was hypnotic, spellbinding, thrilling. Passersby watched and seemed entertained but likely had no idea of the significance of the moment nor the history of what, almost 1000 years ago, would have been a truly religious experience. Pope Gregory would have been proud.
Yeah, just yanking your chain here. We would have loved to have enjoyed this acoustic adventure, but when we visited Notre Dame Cathedral we did not go inside. The line-up to get in stretched across the main square all the way to the next bridge, so we left. But it would have been a lot of fun!