Friday March 31, 12:30 p.m. Between two gusts of wind, filters the sweet melody of the carillon of the Sacré-Coeur, like every day at Angelus time. An unusual ringing in the region: apart from Cholet (Maine-et-Loire) and Châtellerault (Vienne), there are no chimes in the far west. We find more in the north of France. In any case, local residents appreciate it, like the neighborhood pharmacist who “finds it rather pleasant”. Same story from the high school students who picnic under the arcades of the church sheltered from the wind, and from the nearby tobacconist: “It’s a chance to hear the carillon at home!” he asserts.
Because the instrument, which plays its notes three times a day, has remained silent for decades. Perched on a concrete platform under the dome of the imposing building, the carillon of 49 bells was built in 1937 by the architect Laurentin, who wanted it to ring resolutely outwards. After serving for ten years, he was abandoned to the pigeons. Before being rehabilitated in 2011 thanks to a secular association, Adacc (Association of Friends of the Cholet Carillon).
Organ professor at the Cholet conservatory and member of the association, Sébastien Rabiller agrees to bring the instrument back to life and opens a school. Trained by a master carillonneur from Dunkirk (North), this passionate musician now transmits the art of bell ringing to eight students aged 10 to 85. Several of them established on this occasion a living link with the parish community, an environment that they did not particularly frequent.
A rare instrument
It’s 2 p.m. Like every other Friday, Sébastien Rabiller prepares to do private lessons all afternoon. No need to climb the 132 steps that lead to the carillon: lessons are taken on a study carillon installed near the sacristy.
The first student, Axel, 19, is comfortable with the digital keyboard, even if he “prefers to play up there to better feel the vibrations” of the notes. Because on a “real” carillon, each wooden key of the two keyboards, activated respectively by the fists and the feet, is connected by a cable to a bell. “When a piece is ready, the most advanced students can go up and play it,” explains Sébastien Rabiller.
At the moment, they are preparing the annual exam of the Guilde des carillonneurs, the French federation of reference, which will take place on June 24 in Cholet. A great challenge for Axel, who is a member of Adacc. If initially it was musical practice that attracted him, now his commitment goes further: “I have always wondered about faith. Today, I am preparing my confirmation and plan to accompany the mass at the ‘harmonium,’ he confides.
Maryse, 72 years old, has just arrived for the next class. Non-practicing, the beauty of the church is close to her heart. Aware of “her chance to learn to play on a rare instrument”, this former teacher says she is “grateful to the ingenuity of her predecessors”. The carillon was designed to be heard, and “music is shared!” A gratitude shared by the goodwill who worked for its restoration: from the Pays de la Loire region to the town of Cholet, from the diocese to the Heritage Foundation and private donors, Adacc was able to bring together energies to bring together the 250,000 euros needed for the work.
A warmer church
Today, visitors come from all over France to discover the carillon on the occasion of the National Carillon Days in October, or in passing during the summer*. To the great joy of Father Antoine Meunier: “Entering a church to visit a carillon, it makes it friendly and warm,” enthuses the priest, himself a carillon student. For him, “he who is interested in art, who seeks beauty, is someone who seeks God”.
To avoid traffic jams in the narrow stone staircase that leads to the instrument, the association acquired a transportable carillon with 16 bells and a digital carillon two years ago. “During the last national days, we installed them in front of churches and then in different places in the city. The goal was to encourage people to go up and see the real carillon” remembers Sébastien Rabiller. Goal achieved !