Today is August 15th, Assumption Day, a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics in France and a public holiday. It’s a day when most businesses and shops are closed and coming as it does in the midst of the holiday season it’s a day when it seems as though Paris is shut!
There are only two days of the year when my normally bustling little street is deserted, Christmas Day and August 15th, so at lunchtime today I went out to experience the atmosphere.
The street had a surreal feel to it. In this usually busy street the shops were shut and there were almost no people.
The Monoprix, the bane of my life, was shuttered:
The cheese shop was closed:
And so was the butchers.
Save for the Monoprix, most of the shops in my street are not closed just for today; most of them are closed for the month of August! It has always puzzled me how shopkeepers can afford to do that.
While I’m perfectly happy to go without chocolate from Jeff de Bruges for a month, I find it much harder to forgive my local hostelry for shutting up shop throughout August.
So what does my little street sound like in August when it’s empty?
During this year’s holiday season, when sensible Parisians abandon the heat and excessive humidity of the city for more agreeable climes, I’ve been taking advantage of their absence to try to search out ‘quiet’ sounds of Paris. It’s a Sisyphean task, ‘quiet’ is a rare commodity in the Parisian soundscape.
August sounds in my street:
Today, my little street was remarkably quiet although ‘quiet’ is a relative term. The incessant sound of the traffic from the eight-lane Avenue Charles de Gaulle in the distance still drifted in on the wind but the usual sounds of people going about their daily lives were absent. Without the sounds of the people my street seemed to take on a melancholy air.
During this holiday season I’ve been thinking about ‘quiet’ and what quiet actually means in the context of the urban soundscape. I’ve concluded that ‘quiet’ isn’t necessarily the absence of noise, but rather it’s a state where individual sounds, which are always there but usually shrouded in a cloak of more aggressive often unwelcome sounds, are allowed for once to speak and tell their own story.
For example, I’ve walked along this street for over seventeen years and never before heard the rustle of the leaves on the trees or the sound of birdsong. I heard both today. The rustle of the leaves and the birdsong have always been there but they’ve always been shrouded in a cloak of dominant man-made sounds – people and endless traffic. Today, a passing car was an event worth listening to rather than a perpetual nuisance.
At the end of August, Parisians will return from their vacances and we will enter that bizarre period known as la rentrée, the fifth season of the French year nestling between summer and autumn. But, despite that, I shall continue my search for ‘quiet’ Paris – something almost as elusive as a pink unicorn!
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.