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The Bells of Notre-Dame

To celebrate its 850th birthday, Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris has new bells. The new arrivals sounded for the first time last weekend to mark the start of Holy Week. 

Over the centuries, the bells of Notre-Dame de Paris have rung out for deliverances of the city, victories in war, liturgical festivals, visits by popes, state funerals and the coronations of kings. Then in 1789 during the French Revolution the cathedral was redesignated as a "temple of reason" by the new regime. Three years later, all but one of the original bell set was torn out and melted down for cannons.

The largest of the bells, "Emmanuel" which was cast in 1686 was the only survivor. The other bells were finally replaced in 1856 by "one of the most dreadful sets of bells in France", according to campanology expert Hervé Gouriou. Made from cheap metal, they were the wrong shape and size, so they rang totally off key.

In creating the new bells, the challenge was to reconstitute the ringing sound as it existed in the 18th century, just before the revolution. Church archives were studied, all the way back to the 1300's, carefully noting the bell's weight, thickness and diameter to establish how they would have sounded.

Eight new bells have been cast, ranging from 782 to 4,162 kilos, and a huge drone bell weighing six tonnes will join the surviving 13-tonne great bell –"Emmanuel".

Each new bell is tuned perfectly to ring in harmony with the cathedral's the original bell, Emmanuel. And each one has a name - Jean-Marie, Maurice, Étienne, Marcel, Denis, Anne-Genevieve, Gabriel, Marie - and a unique design. The massive bronze castings weigh a total of 23 tons.

The sound not heard since the late 18th century pealed tunefully, and movingly, over central Paris and a huge crowd crushed into the square in front of the cathedral to watch and listen. And when you're next in Paris, you can hear them too.