SOME TIME AGO I was commissioned by a broadcasting organisation to record some very specific street sounds of Paris. They sent me a recording brief and when I read it I discovered that amongst the many other sounds they wanted, I was being asked to make a recording inside the Musée Carnavalet in the rue de Sévigné.
I had mixed feelings about this. The Musée Carnavalet is a museum I know well and visit often … but what on earth is there to record in a museum that could possibly be of interest to an international broadcasting company – and to me for that matter?
The Musée Carnavalet is an absolute gem. It is a museum dedicated to the city of Paris and entry is free. It occupies both the former Hôtel Carnavalet and the former Hôtel Le Peletier de Saint Fargeau. The notorious socialite, Madame de Sévigné lived there from 1677 until her death in 1696 and so it was in her shadow that I entered the museum to embark upon my task.
This proved to be an interesting experience. On my previous visits to this museum I had been engrossed with the exhibits, looking at them and reading the texts associated with them, trying to understand them and putting them into context. The history of the Paris fascinates me and so my visits have always been enjoyable and I have come away feeling that I know much more about this wonderful city.
But this visit was different. I was working, hunting for sounds – the sounds that characterise this museum, the sounds that distinguish this museum from any other museum.
Sounds Inside the Musée Carnavalet:
Seek and ye shall find! In my experience, the distinguishing sounds are always there – it’s just a matter of perseverance, the thrill of the chase and finding the quarry.
And here it was – a creaky wooden floor.
This floor was laid by craftsmen who would have ensured that it was inch perfect and totally silent. Madame de Sévigné would have tiptoed across this floor oblivious to the fact that that it was even there. But today, it lives and breathes. Age has taken its toll, the cracks have appeared and we are left with a wonderful sound legacy.
For me, this wooden floor and its sound is just as much a part of the history of Paris as the exhibits that surround it in the Musée Carnavalet.
THE PLACE DES VOSGES is a square of perfect symmetry. Comprising thirty-six grand houses, nine on each side, with deep slate roofs with dormer windows over brick and stone arcades – the Place des Vosges is a Parisian treasure.
The Place des Vosges dates back to King Henry IV and the Grand Siècle. Henry was somewhat of a city planner and his original idea for the Place Royale as it was then called was to use the shell of the old Tournelles palace in the Marais as a site in which to develop a silk industry which could, he hoped, combat the Italians and boost the domestic economy. But his scheme quickly took on a different life. With the aid of his Chief Minister, Sully, the idea of providing a workers’ village in the Place was transformed into creating an elegant urban square dominated by the aristocracy.
The famous literary hostess, Madame de Séveigné, was born here in 1626, Cardinal Richelieu stayed here in 1615, the poet Théophile Gautier and the writer Victor Hugo both lived here in the nineteenth-century.
I find the Place des Vosges attractive at any time of the year but it is in the summer when the tourists flock to this space.
As well as the architecture, the green space in the centre and the history, the tourists can also enjoy the up-market street music. The Place des Vosges boasts the aristocracy of street musicians in Paris. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, especially in the summer, classically trained musicians, including opera singers and classical instrumentalists of the highest standard, perform here for free.
But even in the winter – on a cold Saturday in January – excellent street music can be found.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the Place des Vosges hunting for interesting sounds. I started recording as I was walking around the Place with no particular objective in mind – and then I came across this – a walk under the arcade arches, past the front of a café and then, further on, three musicians, a bass player, a guitarist and an accordionist, playing to an audience of one – me! What impressed me was that they were playing music because they thoroughly enjoyed playing music – audience or no audience.
I hope you enjoy the sounds and the enthusiasm of the musicians as much as I do.
I couldn’t help feeling that the ghosts of Madame de Séveigné, Théophile Gautier and Victor Hugo were enjoying it too – but what would Cardinal Richelieu make of it?