DEDICATED TO THE 2nd century Italian martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, the Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais is one of the oldest churches in Paris and it’s to be found in the 4th arrondissement, just east of the Hôtel de Ville.
There has been a church on this site since the 4th century but work on the present church was begun in 1494. The chapels of the apse were finished in 1530 and the transept in 1578.
The early building is in the Gothic style but the western front of the church was built in the classical style. It was completed in 1620.
The Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais is home to a fine French Baroque style organ built by François-Henri Clicquot. The organ was restored in the 1970’s but seventeen of the forty-one organ stops remain from the 17th century and fifteen from the 18th century, including all the reeds. All the wind-chests date from before the French revolution.
Perhaps the most celebrated organist of l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais was the French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist, François Couperin.
The church also boasts two other, much smaller, chapel organs.
On 29 March 1918, a German shell fired by the long-range “Paris Gun“, fell on the church during a Good Friday service killing 88 people and wounding 68 others. This was the worst single incident involving the loss of civilian lives during the German bombardment of Paris in 1918.
In 1975, l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais became the headquarters of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem founded by Père Pierre-Marie Delfieu. Devoted to monastic life in an urban context, most of its members work part-time in civil occupations.
I went into l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais recently. As always, I had a sound recorder with me but the sounds I recorded were not the sounds of a service taking place or the sounds of the François-Henri Clicquot organ. Instead, they were quite unexpected sounds.
Sounds inside l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais:
Yes, I recorded the sounds of the other visitors in the church, their footsteps and their chatter, but the sounds that captivated me were the fascinating sounds of this creaking wooden door.
From now on, these rather haunting sounds are the sounds I shall always associate with l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais. I can’t help wondering if François Couperin would recognise them.
AT FIRST SIGHT, the Rue Saint-Roch seems to be an ordinary street in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, a stones throw from the Jardin des Tuileries and the Musée du Louvre. But, as is so often the case in this wonderful city, things are not always quite what they seem.
Let’s start with the obvious. The most prominent feature in the street is the Église Saint-Roch at the junction of the Rue Saint-Roch and the Rue Saint-Honoré.
The church was built in the late baroque style. Louis XIV laid the foundation stone in 1653 and building was completed in 1754.
Sounds inside the Église Saint-Roch:
The church suffered during the French revolution, it was ransacked, and many works of art were stolen or destroyed. Scars of the revolution are still to be seen on the façade of the church with the marks left by flying bullets.
It’s a well-kept secret, but the Église Saint-Roch is notable because the French aristocrat, revolutionary politician, philosopher, writer and notorious libertine, the Marquis de Sade, was married here on May 17, 1763.
The Église Saint-Roch is special for me because it is yet another Parisian church with an organ that has the fingerprints of the master organ builders, François-Henri Clicquot and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll all over it.
In 1750, François-Henri Lesclop was commissioned to build the first organ but he died before the work was completed. François-Henri Clicquot was asked to finish the work, which he did in 1756. The organ was restored just over a hundred years later in 1859 and again in 1881 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. This magical combination of work by François-Henri Clicquot and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll is to be found in churches all over Paris, not least in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
And so, back to the Rue Saint-Roch itself. The origins of the street date back to somewhere around the tenth-century. It was officially named for the first time in 1450 as Rue Saint-Vincent then, several hundred years and several name changes later, it became Rue Saint-Roche in 1879.
Today, amidst scaffolding and extensive building work, Rue Saint-Roche is home to the Paris Bureau of the BBC who advertise their presence in rather austere terms compared to the other more elegant signage on the rest of the building.
Sounds in the Rue Saint-Roch:
The sounds of the Rue Saint-Roch may be what I came to listen to but what I especially came to see was this house, two doors down from the BBC office, N°41 Rue Saint-Roch. An ordinary looking house you might think, but this house has a history, a secret history. During the First World war, N°41 Rue Saint-Roche was the headquarters of a secret British military intelligence operation involving an underground espionage ring operating behind enemy lines.
The story of 41 Rue Saint-Roch is intriguing and brilliantly set out in Janet Morgan’s book, The Secrets of Rue St Roch. It’s a story of ingenuity, bravery and meticulous attention to detail, the very stuff of espionage behind enemy lines.
During the First World War, the Germans depended on trains to sustain and move their armies. The Allies realised the crucial importance of timetable information and of knowing what troop trains in occupied territories were carrying. Movements of men and guns from one part of the front to another, or the clearing of hospitals in forward areas, indicated the position and timing of the next offensive.
It was difficult to find people who could provide such intelligence, and difficult for it to be passed on. The front line was impermeable, neutral borders mined and electrified, movement restricted and clandestine radio and aerial reconnaissance were in their infancies. The Allies made many attempts, but German counter-espionage was formidable – though one network, La Dame Blanche in Belgium, was an espionage triumph. There was no coverage of tiny Luxembourg, which became, as the war went on, an increasingly important rail hub.
It was partly to address this that Captain George Bruce, later Lord Balfour, was assigned to a department of British military intelligence at 41 Rue Saint-Roch. He identified a possible recruit, a middle-aged Luxembourgeoise called Lise Rischard, whom he persuaded to return to her country as a railway spy. She began reporting by letter and newspaper code, which was a difficult business but this improved when she was joined by another of Bruce’s agents, an irrepressible Polish-Belgian soldier called Baschwitz Meau, who had escaped five times from German prison camps.
Meau was inserted into Luxembourg by hydrogen balloon at a late and crucial stage of the 1918 German spring offensive. The importance of the intelligence that he and Rischard provided from the agents they recruited can be gauged by the honours they later received – she the CBE, he the DSO, and both were made Chevaliers of the Legion d’Honneur.
I often wonder how many of the people who pass along the Rue Saint-Roch every day have any idea of the secret history of the house at N°41.
I walk the streets of Paris endlessly, observing and listening, and I am constantly intrigued by how the seemingly ordinary can often turn out to be quite extraordinary. The Rue Saint-Roch is a perfect example of this serendipity.
THE MIDDLE OF AUGUST is perhaps not the best time to go sound hunting in Paris. It’s a curious time, the weather is hot, the locals are for the most part away on holiday and many bars, restaurants and shops are closed.
I was in the 6th arrondissement on Saturday where I found this usually bustling area particularly quiet. Beyond a near empty Place Saint-Sulpice the Eglise Saint-Sulpice glistened in the summer sunshine. It’s dedicated to Sulpitius the Pious, it’s the second largest church in Paris and it’s always worth a visit so I went in.
The present church, which took one hundred and forty years to build, was completed in 1732 and it stands on the site of a much earlier, thirteenth-century Romanesque church. The present church is noted for several things; the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire were both baptised here, the church is home to a gnomon, a scientific instrument used to determine the time of the equinoxes and hence of Easter (it featured in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code), a side chapel in the church houses two murals by Eugène Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel and Heliodorus Driven from the Temple and … Saint-Sulpice houses a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ, perhaps the finest instrument of the French symphonic-organ era.
My sound hunting adventures in Paris have taken me to many places and I’ve discovered many different sounds, but few sounds affect me as much as the sounds of the organ and particularly the organs of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. On Saturday, I was able to capture the sounds of his finest creation.
The Organ of Saint-Sulpice:
Just as he did with the organ of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, Cavaillé-Coll reconstructed and improved upon the existing Saint-Sulpice organ built by François-Henri Clicquot. The instrument is reckoned to be the summit of Cavaillé-Coll’s craftsmanship and genius. The sound and musical effects achieved in this instrument are almost unparalleled.
Some world-renowned organists have played the Cavaillé-Coll organ in Saint-Sulpice; Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély was the organist from1863 to 1869 and then for the next one hundred years just two people occupied the post, two of the most illustrious names in the world of church organ music, Charles-Marie Widor from 1870 to 1933 and Marcel Dupré from 1934 to 1971.
The Organ of Saint-Sulpice:
It is largely thanks to this continuity that the organ of Saint-Sulpice has avoided the changes in taste and fashion which have ravaged so many of Cavaillé-Coll’s other creations. Appointed in 1985, Daniel Roth is the current organist assisted by Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin.
I have no idea who was playing the organ on Saturday and somehow it didn’t really seem to matter. They were practising and clearly having fun whilst I was perfectly happy to sit and simply let the rich palette of Cavaillé-Coll’s sounds wash over me.
You can hear more of the organ of Saint-Sulpice here.
DON’T YOU JUST LOVE it when an otherwise ordinary day turns out to be extra special! That’s what happened to me earlier this week.
After a rather tedious morning I met a friend for lunch in Saint-Germain in the 6th Arrondissement. We arranged to meet at a restaurant I hadn’t been to for a long time and I had quite forgotten what a delightful place it is. The restaurant, the food and my friend were on sparkling form so our three-hour lunch simply couldn’t have been better.
After lunch my friend left for another engagement and I wandered along the Boulevard Saint-Germain to have a look at the Christmas market … my fifth Paris Christmas market this year.
My walk ended with me going into the Eglise Saint-Germain as I often do when I’m in this area. I hadn’t though expected the surprise that awaited me when I went inside. The organ was being tuned.
Organ Tuning in L’Eglise Saint-Germain:
These sounds are a short extract of the thirty minutes of the organ tuning that I recorded all of which have now been consigned to my Paris sound archive.
Regular visitors to this blog will know of my love of the organs of Aristide Cavaille-Coll, many of which are to be found in Paris, but the organ in this church is not one of his creations.
This organ was built by Pierre Thierry in 1679 and it was modified by Louis-Alexandre and François-Henri Clicquot in 1766. Organ enthusiasts will know that the magnificent Cavaille-Coll organ in the Cathédrale Nôtre Dame de Paris was built around an original François-Henri Clicquot organ.
Earlier this year, I was in L’Eglise Saint-Germain for a wedding when the organ was in full flow and what a delight it was to listen to.
The Organ of L’Eglise Saint-Germain:
So, there we are – an ordinary day transformed into a perfect day by a delightful lunch in a perfect setting with the company of a dear friend followed by an unexpected sound feast. What could be better?
Well, hot, roasted chestnuts might come a close second!
For another organ tuning experience you might want to look at this – my visit to Warsaw in March of this year when I happened upon the tuning of the organ in Saint John’s Cathedral in the old city of Warsaw.