Hello, fellow nerds!
Hooray! It's here: the fourth post in my quest to analyze all the songs in "Hunchback of Notre Dame!"
Today's subject is the song "Bells of Notre Dame," and gosh, there's just SO much to say about it.
But I'm going to focus on just one particular aspect of it, which is how it introduces three musical leit-motifs that reappear throughout the score. These three melodies are fascinating because they're dialectical. That is, they are emotionally self-contradictory and provide a complex musical commentary on the movie's many themes: disability, justice, monstrosity, good, evil, the church, and so forth.
Wait, hold on a minute: what's a "leit-motif?"
Glad you asked! A leit-motif is a musical pattern that recurs throughout a movie and is associated with a particular character, location, emotion, or idea. For example, think of the "Imperial Death March" that we always hear when Darth Vader enters a scene. Or that Jaws "baaaaaaaaaaa-DUM baaaaaaaaaaa-DUM" theme that signals the shark's approach. Even before these characters appear on screen, we know that they're about to do so, because we hear their leit-motifs.
But the interesting thing about leit-motifs is that, as film music scholar Frank Lehman has put it, they're "semantically imprecise, inconsistent, or changeable." They can change their form and meaning over the course of a film to show how a particular character is transforming. They can also represent multiple ideas at once, or shift from representing one emotion to representing another.
OK, cool, so what are these leit-motifs in "Bells of Notre Dame?"
The following image shows an excerpt from the end of the song (mm. 255-267). This is the part where Frollo has been told that he must raise baby Quasimodo as his own child, as repentance for murdering the boy's mother (and nearly murdering the kid himself).
As you can see, it's basically a string of short, contrasting melodic ideas, which I've numbered 1-3.
These are some of the major leit-motifs that recur throughout the rest of the film, and here they are already, all clumped together, at the end of the introductory song.
I call them:
The Cathedral Theme: Both Good and Evil
The Cathedral Theme appears countless times throughout the movie in connection with Notre Dame and, more broadly, Christianity. For example, we hear it in the background music when Frollo tries to throw baby Quasimodo into a well outside the Cathedral, "sending this demon to Hell where it came from." We also hear it in the chorus of "Hellfire," when Frollo sings about his own soul descending into Hell. And we hear it, triumphant and joyful, when Clopin sings about "the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells of Notre Dame!"
What's interesting about this leit-motif is that it sometimes appears triumphant and glorious, while at other times it's demonic and tragic. In short: it's both good and evil.
Here's a fabulous example: as shown in the image below, "Bells of Notre Dame" begins with a clear statement of the Cathedral Theme in minor, while the song ends with its re-statement in major. In this context, I hear it representing the cathedral itself, and specifically the bell towers. What's less clear to me, however, is the commentary that this is making: is the cathedral both good and evil? Uplifting and destructive? A sanctuary and a prison? Well, yes - all of this - as we discover over the course of the movie.
The Out There Theme: Not In Here
The "Out There" motif is cool, because its most basic 3-note component is a mirror image of the Cathedral Theme. And of course it is: one of the major themes of the movie is the dialectical relationship between the cathedral and the world outside it. While Frollo claims that he's protecting Frollo by keeping him locked in the bell tower, in fact the exact opposite is true. The sanctuary is a prison, and his true home is far away from where he grew up. So it makes sense that these two leit-motifs should be interconnected.
The "Quasi-Frollo" Recitative:
Samantha Zerin has a PhD in historical musicology from New York University, and has taught music theory at NYU, Brown University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is also a composer and poet, and teaches private students. To learn more about Dr. Zerin and her work, you can visit her main website, www.CreativeShuli.com