A musician's thoughts on Notre Dame
Updated: Jan 23
Like so many around the globe, I’m positively heartsick over yesterday’s fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. To stand helplessly by as something so filled with grace and beauty was consumed by flames was a kick in the gut…a kick to the soul.
Why did so many of us have that reaction? Why does the destruction of a place like Notre Dame hit us so profoundly when a fire that burns, say, a warehouse to the ground does not? Several commentators have answered this question, and it’s generally agreed that the difference between Notre Dame and an industrial warehouse is that Notre Dame is a masterpiece of architecture, an icon for French culture, a marker of history. It’s a monument to the human spirit, one that transcends the religion it happens to be associated with. And so its destruction feels like an assault on that spirit; it’s senseless; it’s violent – especially true with fire, which destroys by consuming. Fire ravages in a way that other destructive forces don’t, and so makes the destruction of works of art by fire especially hard to watch.
While this answer is certainly true – great spaces like Notre Dame do indeed celebrate the best in humanity, and their loss does indeed assault our spirit – I don’t think it quite gets to the heart of the matter. I think there’s something deeper. Places like cathedrals – or for that matter any great public space or monument you can think of – bring two things together that are absolutely essential to our humanity: beauty and community. Spaces like Notre Dame speak to us universally because they embody these two things that are at the heart of what it means to be human: our capacity for perceiving, creating, and understanding beauty, and our desire for shared experience, our need for belonging, that can only happen through community. And when one takes in the spectacular beauty of Notre Dame and joins it with the history represented there, one understands why it embodied the very soul of a nation, why it embodies a piece of our collective soul. Its destruction affects us so deeply because it cuts deep down into our very being; it penetrates our spirit, and releases our collective pain.
I was very moved, though hardly surprised, to learn that the crowds who gathered nearby started to sing while they watched the flames rage. Because music is another way that beauty and community are brought together. It’s why music always plays a central role in how a community responds to tragedies: it gives voice to our shared grief in a way that nothing else can.
As an educator tasked with helping students build careers in music, I see the Notre Dame disaster as a potent reminder of what music can do for people. Music’s ability to bring beauty to community is an enormously powerful thing; it’s at the very heart of why we do what we do, and it’s the dynamite that fuels our art. The challenge, however, is to figure out how to harness that power through our music-making: what does bringing beauty to community mean for each of us as individuals? What does it mean for the chamber group we play with? What does it mean for our local opera company or symphony?
The answer to these questions will be different for each musician, organization, and community. And those answers will be revealed by understanding the communities we seek to reach and engaging our imagination, creativity, and passion to develop effective mechanisms for reaching them. That’s what it means to be an artist-entrepreneur. While the tragedy of Notre Dame is a wound to our souls, music stands at the ready to help heal that wound. These days our world has a lot of wounds. Musicians: what can you do to heal them? Start by bringing beauty to community.