Sunday morning in Paris, I enjoy mass at Saint-Sulpice, a church with perhaps the best pipe organ in Europe. As I am surrounded by towering vaults, statues of saints and centuries of tradition, it is the music that sends me. The spiritual sails of Saint-Sulpice have been filled for two centuries by its organ of 6,600 pipes. Organists from all over the world come to Paris just to listen to this organ.
As the first mass of the morning comes to a close, half the crowd remains seated as the organist performs a musical victory lap. I happen to be sitting next to Lokrum, a young Swiss organist. He never comes to Paris without visiting Saint-Sulpice. When the organ stops, he whispers: “Follow me. You won’t see anything like it in America.
I am Lokrum to the back of the church. A little church mouse opens a small, unmarked door and we descend like sixteenth notes down a spiral staircase to the organ gallery of our wildest dreams. Here, organists are intimately linked to a dark world that few people have entered. They talk about the masters of 200 years ago as if they had just heard them in concert.
Lokrum stops me in front of a yellowed document. Sliding his finger along the glass frame, he said reverently: “The 12 organists of Saint-Sulpice. Most of them are famous in the evolution of pipe organ music. They have been making wonderful music in this church for over 200 years without a break. “
Like presidents or kings, the lineage is drawn on the wall. Charles-Marie Widor played from 1870 to 1933. Marcel Dupré from 1934 to 1971. “Dupré started a tradition in Saint-Sulpice,” says Lokrum. “For generations, organ lovers have been welcomed here in the attic every Sunday.” (Unfortunately, this practice was recently discontinued.)
And now the organist is Daniel Roth. I join a select group of aficionados who gather around this light and unpretentious man who looks like an organist. He pushes back his flowing hair with graceful fingers. He knows he’s sitting on a bench that organists around the world dream of warming up. True to Dupré’s tradition of hospitality, Roth is friendly in four languages.
History is stung all around: dusty paintings of pipes, master organ builders, busts of former organists and a photo of Albert Schweitzer with Dupré. And watch over all this, a bust of the idol of organists, Jean-Sébastien Bach.
Lokrum pulls me behind the organ into a dark room filled with what looks like 18th century Stairmasters. He murmurs: “Before electricity, it took five men to operate these bellows. And these bellows fed the organ.
Suddenly the music begins, signaling the start of the next mass. Back to the organ, a bustle of music lovers crowds around a keyboard tower in a forest of pipes. In the middle of it all, under a hanging heat lamp, sits Mr. Roth. With childish enthusiasm, he digs his fingers into the organ.
Flanked by an assistant on either side of the long bench, arms and legs outstretched like an angry cat, Roth plays the five keyboards. Supremely confident, he ignores the offbeat flashes of the cameras of his fellow organ lovers, follows the unfolding of Mass through a tiny mirror and makes glorious music.
The keyboards are stacked high, surrounded by 110 stops – wooden knobs that turn the pipes off and on – in a multitude of tonal bundles. His assistants push and pull the stops after each musical phrase. They act quickly but as carefully as if God were listening.
Lokrum motioned for me to sit on a chair with a towering perch to supervise the musical action. On a well-worn wooden keyboard of pedals sprawling under the bench, Roth’s feet scroll with his fingers. A groupie turns on her recorder to listen to the music as Roth crans his neck to find the priest in his mirror.
I watch busy keyboards and Roth’s working feet. Then, turning around, I peek through the pipes and descend on a small congregation. Just as priests celebrate Mass in a church, whether the faithful are present or not, this organ must make music. I marvel at the persistence of European high culture. I am grateful to have lived it so intimately.
This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and arranges European tours. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.
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