Last evening, we were strolling by the Luxembourg Garden, casually looking at the giant photos posted on the iron fence around much of the Garden's periphery. it was a massive exhibit celebrating the hundred year anniversary of World War I, known across Europe as “The Great War.” This war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, resulted in greater destruction of human life and habitations, both military and civilian, than any other war ever. Today, in 2014, the formerly warring countries across Europe have created the European federation. They have turned to collaboration rather than conquest. The photos, contemporary views of sites that were noted scenes of destruction 100 years ago, showed that despite a hundred years of forest re growth, the earth still bears catastrophic scars of that awful conflict. And despite the great length of time that has come and gone, the modern experience of Paris still echoes with the effects of Germany's now ancient destruction and occupation of this city.
When Nancy went out this morning for bread for breakfast and lunch, she spotted a sign announcing a graduation recital at the Schola Cantorum, a world renowned private music school (similar to New York's Juilliard) right around the corner from our apartment. We attended, and were treated to a range of performance abilities from “future star” to “still needs work.” The caliber really was quite high — world class in a couple of instances. As I relaxed and listened to more serious contemporary music than I'd ever heard in one concert, I was watching the young artists — in their mid twenties for the most part. To participate in these recitals, each of these young people had studied here since high school — 6 or 9 years, depending on their graduating level. They were from all over the world, all striving to excel in the universal language that is music. I was very aware for each one of the amazing physical virtuosity and skill that they were pouring into their performances. For each one, more than I'd ever realized from attending professional concerts in large concert venues, the whole body was mobilized to create sound. The performers had literally become the music. Whether they were singing or playing an instrument, the making of music was an athletic feat — though the music itself might be pure Spirit.
The Schola occupies a 500 year old building that once was an abbey of English Benedictine monks who had fled the Protestant schism in England in the 17th century. Over many years, English Catholics, notably the Sewart family, starting with King James II, took refuge in this building. The abbey was confiscated by the French Revolution in 1789 and then, in succession, became a cotton mill and a prison, before the French government returned it to the English Catholic Church. However, by French law, the building, because owned by a foreign institution, is actually under control of the French government, which has rented it to the music school since 1895. Musicians like Debussey, Edward Varese, Eric Satie, Olivier Messiaen, and Cole Porter (go figure!) have studied and taught here over the years. The concert room, on the second floor of the old building, was fitted with a full sized pipe organ, and the last performer played her piece, a composition by Messiaen, on that organ. I found touching the fact that a student at the school where Messiaen, the most famous modern composer of music for organ had studied and taught, was playing a Messaien piece on the organ that the composer himself had undoubtedly played at one or another time, perhaps for his own graduation recital.
After the concert ended, the 100 or so attendees went down the outside stairs and lingered in the courtyard, a beautiful, serene sanctuary with ancient trees and modern bronze statuary of dancers, surrounded by 19th century apartment buildings lining narrow streets just outside the Schola's high stone walls. As people gradually filtered out to the street, we enjoyed in the otherwise quiet courtyard the beautiful strains of music filtering out from large open windows in the four ancient abbey buildings around us — a soprano singing an aria alternating with a flautist playing a sweet melody. They formed a mellifluous accompaniment to the high sweet voices of two children who had attended the concert with their parents, and were now playing hide and seek behind the broad trunks of ancient courtyard trees.
The lesson of the day seemed to be the depth of history that envelopes every place and every experience in this ancient city. Everywhere one looks, indications of past occupants, events, and sites appears with even a slight willingness to open to them. Our street, rue des Feullantines, for instance, is named for an obscure order of Italian cloistered nuns that occupied a long disappeared convent, with its acres of gardens and vineyards, alll around us. The street is named for the alleyway that led to the convent gates. The chuch down the street, St. Jacques du Haut Pas, started out as a Benedictine abbey founded to tend to the needs of pilgrims walking from Paris on the pilgrimage to St. James of Compostelo, in northern Spain. The church is on St. James St., the route that the pilgrims followed through Paris. Walking up the medieval street toward its beginning, we see that its name changes to “rue du Faubourg St. Jacques”, just across the broad avenue that is now Boulevard Port Royal. This wide, straight boulevard occupies the emplacement of the ancient inner wall that once, a long time ago, surrounded Paris to defend it from maurauding tribes. Now it's a beautiful place to sit and observe the passers-by. Then it was a fortification. The Faubourgs were villages outside that fortification. Now, it's all a seamless part of a modern city.
Our funniest encounter with the history that lies under everything, today, was a street corner shop for movie and television memorabilia and media. Etched in the glass over the front door was the legend, “Store established in 1866,” Hmmmm……