November 29, 2023
A Celebration of Bells

Each summer, the city of Perpignan showcases a famous treasure

After enduring two world wars and more than 100 years of neglect, the bells of Perpignan have emerged as France’s only fully intact carillon.

Morning, noon and night, they toll the Angelus over the city.

You can also hear them during cultural events, such as the Festival International Carillon de Perpignan, which in 2010 runs through August 19th.

The carillon sits high in the dusty bell tower of the Cathedral St. Jean-Baptiste. From the outside, the tower looks ancient and unused.

But Laurent Pie of Perpignan and Elizabeth Vitu, an American originally from Virginia, journey up the 122 stairs every Saturday morning to play.

“We come to play just like this, for free,” said Pie, the Cathedral’s carillonneur. “We love music, and so we do it.”

Pie and Vitu have worked together to publicize the bells since they were restored in 1996.

Now the carillon is part of life in 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, the assistant carillonneur.

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, as well as for the upkeep of the carillon. Pie accepts this as part of his 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 [a bit] larger, which is getting the money for the concerts and festivals,” he said.

A spirit of camaraderie flows between the two.

Pie worked as an organist and high school music teacher in the Perpignan area before being tapped as 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 on 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 to 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.”

Saving the Carillon

The bells, commissioned in 1872 Jean-Francois Metge and exhibited at the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris, were installed in the cathedral in 1880.

Though the carillon enjoyed a few short years of popularity, no one in the area knew how to play the massive instrument, so it faded from view.

During the first and second world wars, when soldiers melted down carillon bells to create bullets and cannons, they spared the carillon of Perpignan. The Germans didn’t realize the bells existed, according to Vitu.

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

The government attempted to restore the carillon in 1956, but failed. The instrument deteriorated further.

“This place was totally destroyed,” Pie said of the bell tower. “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 by establishing carillon classes at the Perpignan Mediterranee Conservatory, in hopes that the bells will never fall silent again.

If that doesn’t work out, “I’ll teach with the practice carillon in my home or in the tower,” Vitu said. “We just want to make sure there is someone here.”

This article was adapted from InPerpignan,  a multimedia project of the Institute for Education in International Media and the San Francisco State University journalism department.

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