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June 13, 2010

Saturday’s Sound of the Day

by soundlandscapes

After six hours of less than fruitful sound hunting in Paris yesterday I was finally rewarded with one of those rare golden moments that seem to come when you are least expecting them.

My sound hunting took place in the Vth and VIth arrondissements, broadly from the Panthéon to St Michelle via the rue des Ecoles and the Sorbonne. A stop in the church of St Etienne du Mont at the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève is something I always do when I am in that part of Paris. This church of course houses the shrine of St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, as well as the tombs of Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine. Jean-Paul Marat is buried in the church’s cemetery.

Close to the church I also called in to one of my favourite shops, La Dame Blanche, which sells CD’s and vinyl records of every genre imaginable. I came away from there with a CD of Bach’s Great Preludes and Fugues for organ.

To cut a long story short, I ended up in St Michel where I had something to eat but little to add to my Paris Soundscapes sound collection. Having eaten, I was about to set off for home when, on the spur of the moment, I decided to call into the Church of St Séverin. Suddenly, a largely barren day in terms of sound turned into an absolute jewel. A group of excellent young singers were rehearsing and I was there ready for the moment.

A very good day.

Saturday’s sound of the day : Singers – St Severin

Notes about the  Église Saint-Séverin

The Église Saint-Séverin is the oldest parish church on the left bank of the Seine. It is a beautiful Parisian church in blazing Gothic style.

The history of this church dates to the 6th century when Séverin, a pious hermit, lived there. The small oratory that honoured Séverin became a chapel and then a basilica because the wives of the kings of France, who then lived in Thermes, used to come and pray here.

The Vikings destroyed the basilica. The church was then rebuilt during the 11th century starting with the façade. It also became, at the same time, a parish church. The first three bays of the nave, the first southern aisle and the bell-tower were built during the same period.

The church was enlarged during the 14th century with the addition of a second southern aisle. From 1489 to 1495, five other bays and the chevet were built. During the same period, the southern aisles were rebuilt while two northern aisles were added.

The several lateral chapels were built from 1498 to 1520. In 1681, the duchess of Montpensier, a close cousin of Louis XIV, who was also called the « Grande Demoiselle », had the idea of covering the chancel’s archways with marble based on plans drawn by Charles Le Brun and executed by Jean-Baptiste Tuby. In the 18th century, the triforium was perforated in order to light up the inside of the church. Finally in 1837, when the St. Pierre-aux-Boeufs church was destroyed to make way for Arcole Street, its portal, dating from the 13th century, was fitted to the unfinished western façade of St. Séverin.

The church is only 60 m (197 ft.) long but is 34 m (112 ft.) wide. Its 8-bay nave has no transept. Its double aisles, as in Notre-Dame, lead to a famous ambulatory. Above the triforium, the large windows are decorated with very beautiful stained glass dating from the 15th and 16th centuries among which some are originating from St. Germain-des-Prés. The bell tower houses the most ancient bell in Paris, in dates back to 1412.

The exterior, with the chapels’ high side walls and the thin flying buttresses, is still surrounded with ancient houses on the north side and discrete archways on the south side.

The organ

St. Séverin church had an organ as early as the 14th century that was replaced early in the 16th century. In the next century, organ builder Valeran de Héman worked at St. Séverin (the stop list for the Positif division dates from July 5, 1626).

Around 1670, organ builders Charles and Alexandre Thierry rebuilt the bellows and completed the restoration of the organ in 1673. It was then a 29-stop instrument.

Michel Forqueray, appointed organist in the beginning of the 18th century, got a new organ loft and a new instrument. According to contracts signed on April 25, 1745, François Dupré was responsible for woodwork and Jacques-François Fichon was responsible for the sculpting. It is still possible today to admire the magnificent organ case in pure Louis XV style (rocaille decorations, base of the large turrets decorated with cherub heads and topped with trophies of instruments, the median turret topped with two angels, the central turret of the Positif topped with the Paschal Lamb laid down on the Book of Seals, lateral turrets crowned with vases).

Organ builder Claude Ferrand built a new instrument using existing pipework. This large “16-foot” organ was considered as one of the best in the Capital and was played by Nicolas-Gilles Forqueray who had succeeded his uncle. He was himself replaced by his nephew Nicolas Séjan who remained organist until the fall of the Ancien Regime.

On October 21, 1825, Dallery Sr. wrote that “ the organ is in such a bad condition that it threatens your interest and public safety “. He got 5 000 francs to execute the repairs mainly on the pipework.

In 1889, the classic-style organ was judged as outdated, John Abbey’s son was awarded a contract to rebuild the organ. Only 25 stops were be preserved. Abbey completely rebuilt the instrument: the bellows, the wind system, the mechanical action and the console are new. The organ was completely revoiced. Even though the organ is now a symphonic instrument, it has lost its great Plein Jeu.

Organist Albert Périlhou played this organ for the next twenty-five years. Fauré and Saint-Saens were invited to improvise on this instrument during Sunday masses.

In 1958, a project was launched by Father Aumont of St. Séverin to commission a new organ. This was built by Alfred Kern of Strasbourg, and comprised a more classic structure. Michel Chapuis, appointed titular organist when the work was completed, made sure that  maintenance of the instrument was performed regularly.

In 1988, organ builder Dominique Lalmand revised the wind system, adjusted the combination pedals for reeds and mixtures, regulated the key action of several manuals, and carried out a revoicing on the Plein Jeu of the Positif division.

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