Last night was fête de la musique in Paris. This is one of the most delightful and imaginative of the many ways in which Paris celebrates itself and uses its public spaces. Started in 1982 by Minister of Culture Jack Lang, and now imitated in hundreds of cities around the world, fête de la musique is a people’s music festival that brings hundreds of thousands of Parisians into the streets on June 21st, the first night of summer. Everyone is invited to perform. Grunge bands set up on street corners and in squares, hook to a power source, and blast their music for milling crowds. String quartets play Beethoven in the toney Place des Vosges. Solitary violinists or oboists gather tiny bands of admiring listeners on side streets. World famous orchestras and vocal ensembles perform in Paris’ premier concert spaces. And everything is free.
In past years, Susie and I have simply wandered down to the river and joined the strolling families and couples moving from group to group, spending as much time watching the other strollers as listening to the music, but this year we decided to try to get into one of the premier events, a concert by the world-famous early music group The Tallis Singers. The concert was listed in the indispensable PariScope as taking place at 2030 hrs [i.e., 8:30 p.m.] in the Musée d’Orsay.
The Musée d’Orsay began life in 1900 as the Gare d’Orsay, one of Paris’ huge, ornate train stations. In 1986, after a complete make-over, it reopened with the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artworks in the world. Train stations tend to be vast, cavernous spaces, and the Gare d’Orsay was no exception. Located on the Left Bank quais just opposite the point on the Right Bank at which the Louvre ends and the Jardin des Tuileries begins, the station stretches for a long block east to west. The renovated museum preserves the enormous open interior space as a “nave” [as though it were a cathedral], surrounded by galleries on four levels. The museum contains an auditorium where Susie and I recently attended a [paying] concert, and the inevitable restaurant.
Despite arriving almost an hour early, we found ourselves pretty far back on the line waiting outside the museum. When the doors were opened, even though the concert was free, a select group of special guests was let in first. Not even Paris’ socialist mayor can overcome the French obsession with social class. The concert was held in the nave, and les invités[O1] [O2] immediately occupied the chairs that had been set up close to the impromptu stage, leaving the rest of us to grab spots on the marble benches lining the nave or simply to sit on the floor. Susie and I bagged two of the last free spots on the benches, and watched as hundreds upon hundreds of people poured in, creating a pretty tight jam. Considering that the concert featured Palestrina and Allegri, it is astonishing that many of the people in the audience were young. When Susie and I used to attend the wonderful early music concerts of Aston Magna in Great Barrington each summer, we would joke that our presence was lowering the average age of the audience.
Shortly before 2030, when people were still milling about, Susie caught sight of Pierre Bourhis, a tall, striking baritone whom we have heard and enjoyed countless times in concerts of medieval music at the Cluny, le Musée du Moyen Âge, several blocks from our apartment. It turned out he was looking for the two ladies sitting next to us on the stone bench, and when he approached, I called his name and thanked him for the lovely concerts we had heard [in French, I might add.] He seemed pleased.
The concert, which lasted for about seventy-five minutes without intermission, was of course simply splendid, and despite the discomfort of the unyielding marble benches, I spent a rapturous hour and fifteen minutes. The high point, and one of the truly magical moments in my concert-going experience, came not in one of the Palestrina offerings, but in the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri, a composer of whom I had never heard. Four times during the brief twelve minute piece, a lone soprano voice soared higher and higher above the rich tapestry of sound created by the other nine singers until it seemed to detach itself from any actual person and swell, pure, full, completely without vibrato, filling the vast space of the Musée d’Orsay. I am familiar with the arguments for the existence of God and their refutations, and I can say definitively that none of them, even tweaked by Alvin Plantenga, can hold a candle to that divine sound.
Afterward, we went back to our Place Maubert café and ate Berthillon cassis sorbet while two rock bands competed in different corners of the Place. Republican proponents of “freedom fries” to the contrary notwithstanding, the French have some things they can teach us about what it is to be a society.