Some of our most enjoyable moments in Paris (as in London) have been concerts of sacred music in historic churches where those pieces were meant to be performed. Over time, we’ve enjoyed concerts in Paris at Notre Dame, St. Louis en l’Ile, St. Eustache, and la Sainte Chapelle. The acoustics in some of these places are amazing. La Sainte Chapelle, the lofty chapel in what was the royal palace, now the palace of justice, is a jewel visually and acoustically. It is the perfect 13th century setting for measured, dainty music performed by a small ensemble of voices or instruments.
In contrast, Notre Dame de Paris, another place of worship completed in the 13th century, is enormous. The cathedral’s nave, the central portion from the altar back to the majestic doors in the façade, is 225 feet, although the whole length of the cathedral is about 400 feet. The height of the central vaulting is about 100 feet (about 10 modern stories). The width of the nave is around 40 feet (if tilted vertically this would roughly correspond to a 4 story building). These are interior dimensions. So performers of any kind at Notre Dame have to fill a vast space with sound, or not be heard. When we’ve attended Mass at Notre Dame, it’s typically been extremely difficult to understand the words of the mic’ed priest (especially since many priests in France these days are African or Caribbean and speak a differently accented French). In contrast, the wonderful choir of Notre Dame, the “Maitrise,” knows the space intimately and its engineers have studied how to shape sound there, so the singers are much easier to hear and understand.
I had never attended an organ concert at Notre Dame. However, it is a famed instrument, of a size to match the cathedral. The floor of the organ loft is situated about 60 feet up the interior of the façade, and the organ itself – console, pedals, and pipes – fills the remaining space, meaning the organ must measure about forty feet wide by about forty feet tall. It’s hard to imagine a musical instrument four stories tall and wide!
This evening, we had the extreme pleasure of hearing a demanding concert performed by the master organist of Notre Dame, Jean Guillou. Maestro Guillou, at age 86, has been a principal organist at Notre Dame for over 50 years (He was the titular organist of his hometown parish church in Angers, France, by age 12, in 1932!) He has performed on many major organs of Europe and South America, and is renowned for his mastery and creativity. Tonight’s program included a very modern piece by Guillou himself (he makes one of his own pieces the first performance of all his concerts, apparently, as well as all his recordings). It also presented pieces by Widor and Franck that were composed for this organ at Notre Dame, and a masterwork by Franz Liszt that challenged the organ in every way imaginable, in turns showing off its lacy pizzicato possibilities, its depth of serene sonority, and its booming fortissimo.
For over an hour and a half, Maestro Guillou teased out of the Notre Dame Organ an incredible variety of sounds and rhythms. His playing in turn tickled the chandeliers and rattled the rafters, while invoking the angels in the hearts of his listeners, who filled every seat in the nave. At the end of the concert, the hundreds of listeners sprang to their feet as one, in thunderous appreciation for a truly virtuoso performance. We stood and turned to look up and there he was, a tiny white haired figure of a man bowing and waving to us from behind the loft’s railing – seeming so small as to be almost imperceptible against the background of the enormous ranks of organ pipes. It was hard to realize that this one human had enticed from the organ such magnificent music for the preceding hour and a half to so generously fill the cavernous depths of the cathedral and send soaring into rapture the hundreds of souls who were present. It was harder yet to imagine that anyone, let alone someone who is 86 years old, could then turn back and provide for us not one but two energetic encores! I got the impression that being one with an organ for hours every week has to keep someone in top form (as a church organist myself, decades ago, I know a little the athleticism needed to play even a very modest church organ, dancing on the pedals while also working multiple keyboards.) I was picturing Maestro Guillou’s ordinary human form in constant motion during those 90 minutes, working the pedals, the keyboards and the rows of stops on his magnificent console.
As we exited the cathedral through the three story-tall front doors, opened fully for the occasion, we felt somehow as worthy as princes or prelates, as we greeted the beautifully lighted late evening skyline of central Paris. To hear a sample of Maestro Guillou playing Liszt on the organ at Notre Dame de Paris, go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGDew9Ph9OY.