Day 4: Gothic Romance

by Jennifer Hsiao

After a late night with a home-cooked meal and tastes of different French wines on Tuesday, we woke up early Wednesday morning to eat some delicious pastries from a local bakery before heading off to the metro. Preparing for a day of visiting two gothic structures, each with a large romantic instrument, we arrived at St. Lazare station and boarded the train for our one-hour journey to the city of Rouen. Looking out the window from our train, we passed by several quaint towns and beautiful landscapes.

The abbey church of St. Ouen, Rouen as seen from the organ gallery 

The abbey church of St. Ouen, Rouen as seen from the organ gallery 

After we arrived at Rouen, we went to the church and met our host for the morning and afternoon, Jean-Baptiste Monnot. He took us into the St. Ouen abbey church and told us about its history. The gothic church is covered in beautiful, well-preserved colorful stained glass windows through which natural light can pass through. The church is from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. In the back of the church is a magnificent, beautifully-preserved — and, amazingly, unaltered — Cavaillé-Coll organ. While the instrument is fundamentally romantic in disposition, Cavaillé-Coll reused many pipes from the 17th and 18th centuries in this organ.

The Cavaillé-Coll organ in Rouen. 

The Cavaillé-Coll organ in Rouen. 

Jean-Baptiste showed us the instrument, demonstrating many of its main stops and sounds. The reverberation lasts for 6 seconds in this enormous church, and Jean-Baptiste coached us on how to play and articulate on this organ in this space. 

Brandon Santini performs Vierne for Jean-Baptiste Monnot

Brandon Santini performs Vierne for Jean-Baptiste Monnot

We each got a chance to play the instrument. Some of the pieces we played included Dupré’s Évocation, movements from Widor’s symphonies, and the last movement from Vierne’s sixth symphony.

Around 1:30 PM we took a break to walk around the quaint town as we headed to lunch. It was difficult to imagine this peaceful town being the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. We sat down for lunch at nice restaurant called Brasserie Paul, where we enjoyed some specialties of the region, including apple cider and farm chicken with cider sauce.

Jon Ortloff, organ builder, performing Widor. under a photo of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in Rouen

Jon Ortloff, organ builder, performing Widor. under a photo of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in Rouen

After lunch, en route back to St. Ouen, we went into the city’s big cathedral, which is dedicated to Joan of Arc and was, famously, the subject of ten paintings by Claude Monet. Jean-Baptiste pointed out the tower of light in the center of the church, which is an unusual feature. 

Back at St. Ouen, the rest of us tried out the organ. Post-lunch pieces included Duruflé’s Prelude and Fugue on ALAIN, an adagio of Guilmant, and works of Bach and Messiaen.

Around 4:30 PM, we left the church to take the train back to Paris. Upon arrival, we ate a snack at a café next to Notre-Dame Cathedral and then we went inside to listen to Johannes Skoog, one of Olivier Latry’s students at the Paris Conservatory, play his degree recital — an all-Liszt program.

Olivier Latry explaining the organ at Notre-Dame de Paris. 

Olivier Latry explaining the organ at Notre-Dame de Paris. 

After the recital, Olivier led us up the very long, winding staircase to the organ loft high above.  The organ is one of the most famous in the world, and represents a fusion of French organ design through the centuries — including 9 pipes from 1402 and many of Clicquot and Cavaillé-Coll. Olivier showed us the many features of the organ, including some special effects such as stereo pipes and a mechanism for sustaining notes even after the player has released his/her hand. The range of repertoire that can be played on this organ is breath-taking. An astonishing 250,000 combinations of stops can be stored on this organ’s brand-new console. As he was demonstrating for us, Olivier awed us with his versatility and prowess at the organ.

The playing is great, but very loud! Messiaen's L'apparition de l'eglise éternelle

The playing is great, but very loud! Messiaen's L'apparition de l'eglise éternelle

We each got to try out the instrument, with Olivier registering for us. Some of the pieces were so tremendously loud that we had to cover our ears. 

After a very satisfying night in Notre Dame, we walked back to our apartment at nearly midnight. We picked up a few bottles of wine from a nearby convenience store and sat around the kitchen table enjoying each other’s company. Later, Billy, Corey, Gianmarco, Jennifer, and Noel went to a late-night bar to grab a bite to eat. We were highly entertained by our animated server. 

After a nightcap back at our apartment, we all went to bed in preparation for our trip to Versailles the next day.

Christian Lane