Concert in Notre Dame May 22 2014
I’ve been to Notre Dame, several times. It’s large and imposing, and the detail of sculpture across its façade and around every Gothic door frame is amazing. Last year, for some reason, we weren’t able to find any wonderful concerts while we were here. This year, 2014, it seems that there is wonderful music to enjoy in a church somewhere in Paris virtually every evening. We were attracted by the posters we’d found, on walls and store fronts, promising an important and unusual opportunity to hear Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. The orchestra was high caliber, the children’s and adult choirs of Notre Dame were going to sing the vocal parts, and the conductor of the whole event was a famous European musician. Classical Music Radio, a public radio station in Paris, was going to broadcast the concert live. It sounded fantastic, and we wanted to be sure to make it.
It took us longer to get to Notre Dame by bus than we had anticipated, and we arrived only 40 minutes before the concert’s start time. As we approached, we could see that the line to enter the cathedral extended for at least 2 blocks, with new people adding to its length every second.
We did not yet have tickets, not having realized that they could (and should) be purchased in advance. Most everyone in line already had their tickets, but the same line was for people with and without tickets. ( French lines are pretty free form. ) We slowly approached the cathedral, and when we got to the gate, the ticket controller directed us to get into a second line, inside the fence, for people who still needed to purchase tickets. This line may have had 50 or so people in it. We waited and waited and waited, while 2500 or 3000 people with tickets filed in through the main door to find their seats. Finally, our line started to move, but there were only third tier seats left – ones on the side aisles, outside the gothic columns and way in the back so we would not be able to see the performers. They were pretty cheap seats, and we bought tickets and found seats after the concert had started.
The acoustics turned out to be reasonable – not outstanding, but much better than Duke Chapel in similar seats. The performance was sublime. Clearly, Notre Dame was built to house this caliber and type of music. The concert started at 8, and the sun had not set yet (it doesn’t go down here in June until close to 10 pm).
Not being able to see the performers because of the columns turned out to be an advantage, because it was possible to enjoy the light pouring through the beautiful stained glass windows, and to examine details about Notre Dame’s construction that normally we would have passed over. In every Gothic arch the length of the nave hung an ancient brass chandelier refitted for electricity, each fixture holding about 18 lighted tapers, in a spiral shape. The effect was gently diffused illumination coming from many points of concentrated light. The brass was deeply tarnished, what could be seen of it under what looked like at least 100 years of dust. I sat there trying to picture someone lighting so many candles before electricity, thinking that the first candles lit would have melted significantly before the flames touched the last candles. I also pictured the work involved after each use – someone on a very very high ladder replacing hundreds of tapers in their holders so that the next ceremony could be illuminated. And how many decades do they wait between polishings and dustings? How historic was that thick layer of dust, really? Might it date from the early 1900s when the fixtures were electrified?
And then I contemplated the nooks and crannies that surrounded us. The nave of course, was high and well lighted from the sunlight still beaming everywhere. We were seated outside the columns in side spaces that I learned in French when I lived here many years ago, are called “bas-cotes” — the low sides. Each space corresponded to a Gothic arch between two thick columns bordering the nave – the long thin part of the church between the main altar in the apse – the arms of the cross that forms the whole shape of the church — and the front doors. The ceiling of each space formed a square shape, divided into 4 wedges by branches rising in an arch and crossing in the middle. The ceiling of each wedge was formed by many rows of bricks of different widths, laid by hand to form the graceful roundness of its arch. On the outer side of each space was yet another Gothic column and arch giving onto a wide side aisle with much higher ceiling, its arched ceiling leading into side altars between the supporting columns and buttresses that form the outer wall of the cathedral. Above the bas-cotes on each side ran a gallery that ran front to back – like an overlook onto the people and ceremonies on the floor of the nave. Above those galleries soar the main stained glass windows in all their glory, reaching high to the final set of arched vaults under the roof. I was imagining how all kinds of characters (like the famous probably fictional “hunchback”) would have free run of many nooks and passages without once being visible to the people on the ground level assisting at a Mass or a concert.
Then I proceeded to imagining the amazing knowledge of architecture that made it possible to erect such a building, stone by stone, by hand. And I was contemplating the generations of stone masons and apprentices that spent their lives erecting a part of this imposing building, then passing the skill and the responsibility on to the next younger generation. I was also reflecting on the hundreds of years that building this cathedral took, from start to finish. The famous gargoyles looking out from the towers were only added in the 1800s, whereas the stone floors and foundation were laid in the 1400s. The cathedral was destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times in that interval, but the net effect is that its construction went on for over 400 years!
And by then the light filtering in through the stained glass was dimming significantly, and the performers were bowing, to thunderous applause that lasted for 20 minutes or more. We had been able to experience a major musical event in Paris, being fully present for heavenly music in a heavenly environment that we shared for that hour and a half or so with about 3000 people under the same roof. The whole experience was larger than life.
We left through a side door, and strolled the length of the plaza in front of Notre Dame, crossing the Seine under the last light of the departing sun, and walking along the quai, enjoying the feeling of peace and awe that had marked the concert experience. It was a memorable and beautiful evening!
Outside Notre Dame de Paris at sunset
Quai de la Seine at sunset May 22 2014