Hark, how the bells

Morning, noon and night, 46 bronze bells toll the Angelus over downtown Perpignan. Pealing from the Cathedral St. Jean-Baptiste de Perpignan, these bells endured two world wars and more than 100 years of disuse to become one of France’s unique treasures: a fully intact carillon.

The carillon, an instrument of bells played with a wooden keyboard, sits high in the dusty bell tower. From the outside, the tower looks ancient and unused, but two carillonneurs, one from Perpignan and one from Virginia, journey up the 122 stairs every Saturday morning.

“We come to play just like this, for free,” said Laurent Pie, carillonneur of Cathedral St. Jean-Baptiste de Perpignan, speaking through an interpreter. “We love music and so we do it.”

Pie and his American colleague, Elizabeth Vitu, have been playing together since the bells’ restoration in 1996. The carillon has become an integral part of Perpignan, thanks largely to their efforts.

“If the bells aren’t played, people will lodge, not formal complaints, but they come to the church to see why the bells aren’t being played,” said Vitu, assistant carillonneur.

Photo of Cathedral de Saint-Jean-Baptiste from the Castillet

The Cathedral de Saint-Jean-Baptiste from the Castillet

Pie and Vitu not only play the bells for religious occasions such as masses, Christmas and Easter but have also been charged by the French Ministry of Culture and Art to showcase the carillon during what Pie terms “cultural events.” These include summer showcases and the Festival International Carillon de Perpignan, now in its eighth year.

“It’s one of the prestigious European festivals now,” Vitu said. “We get between 300 and 700 people every concert, which is fantastic.”

Though Pie and Vitu play for free, their international colleagues who perform during the festivals do not. Pie and Vitu are in charge of applying for grant money to pay for the festivals and showcases, as well as for the upkeep of the carillon. Pie accepts this as part of the job, joking that for each bit of money coming in, he fills out 75 government forms.

“The part [of the job] everybody sees is the playing part, but also under it there is a whole part of the job which is quite larger, which is getting the money for the concerts and festivals, which of course nobody sees but it is equally important,” Pie said.

A spirit of cameraderie flows between the two despite their different backgrounds. Pie worked as an organist and high school music teacher in the Perpignan area before being approached to take over the job of carillonneur during the instrument’s restoration in 1996. Vitu graduated from Hollins College in Virginia with a degree in carillon music. She worked with many famous American carillonneurs before moving to France to further her studies.

Pie works as the public relations side of the team, asking for money and introducing the festivals to the public, while Vitu uses her connections and musical knowledge to bring new players to the area and create new arrangements of popular songs.

“We are really very complementary to each other,” Pie said. “You can ask her to make the adaptation and she loves it, and you can ask me to do the administrative part of the job and I love it.”

Bell Tower from the front of the Cathedral

Bell Tower from the front of the Cathedral

This collaboration has brought Perpignan’s carillon up from complete obscurity. The bells, commissioned in 1872 by the priest Jean-François Metge and shown at the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris, were not installed in the cathedral until 1880.

Though it enjoyed a few short years of popularity, no one in the area knew how to play the massive instrument and it faded from view. During the first and second world wars, when soldiers melted down carillon bells to create bullets and cannons, they spared Perpignan’s carillon. The Germans didn’t realize the bells existed, according to Vitu.

“It’s the only carillon in France that’s completely intact. There’s nothing that’s been taken down or missing,” Vitu said.

The government attempted to restore the carillon in 1956, but failed. The bells fell into complete disrepair until the carillon’s classification as a historical monument in 1990.

“This place [the bell tower] was totally destroyed,” Pie said. “It was filled with pigeons and pigeon shit and it was in the open air, so it was not until ‘96 that it was put in use again.”

Now, Pie and Vitu want to pass down their knowledge to future generations through the Perpignan Mediterranee Conservatory, hoping to ensure the carillon is never silent again.

“We’re trying to get a carillon class through the local conservatory,”  Vitu said. “We’re hoping that as of September 2010 I’ll be able to teach carillon there. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll teach with the practice carillon in my home or in the tower. We just want to make sure there is someone here.”