As the festive seasons gears up, it’s time to think about reasons to feel good amid the global gloom…
Last weekend we were at the stunning medieval Cathédrale de St-Alain in Lavaur, to attend an equally stunning concert of Christmas music performed by the La Maîtrise de Toulouse.
The cathedral, a masterpiece of Southern French Gothic art, has recently undergone extensive renovation; as we sat in the vast nave (40 x13.8 metres) under its soaring 22-metre-high blue and gold painted roof, we experienced a moment of pure joy listening to these young choristers, transfixed by the beauty of the singing while simultaneous dying to leap to our feet and join in.
The Maîtrise, formed in 2006 by Mark Opstad under the auspices of the Conservatoire de Toulouse, is the first choir school of its kind in SW France. It has received a veritable cornucopia of glowing reviews (American Record Guide, Organists Review, Diapason Magazine, The Sunday Times…) and in 2017 was awarded the prestigious Prix Bettencourt for choral music. The choristers, aged 11 to 15, work under their talented director and founder, who himself began his career as a chorister at Bristol Cathedral. He continued his musical education at Oxford, then Cambridge, where he was assistant organist of Clare College before coming to France under the Entente Cordiale scholarship scheme. Happily for those of us in Occitania, he moved from Caen to Toulouse, where he is now professor of music at the Conservatoire.
The concert was introduced by Michel Guipouy, President of les Amis des Orgues de Lavaur. Since leaving Big City Toulouse to settle in our rural paradise in the Tarn, I have been moved and inspired by the passion for all things artistic that flourishes here in the countryside. Lavaur (pop: 11,000) has two associations, Pastel en scène and Les Amis des Orgues de Lavaur, comprising a group of volunteers who work tirelessly to bring a rich and varied programme of cultural events to the inhabitants of this town and the surrounding area.
This passion goes hand in hand with a pride in local history and tradition. Lavaur is first mentioned in the 11th century, but became famous during the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) as one of the places which paid most dearly for its tolerance of Catharism. In May 1211, after a siege lasting 37 days by the troops of Simon de Montfort, the castrum was taken. 80 knights were put to the sword, the Lady Guiraude, protector of the town, was thrown alive into a well and pelted with rocks, her brother Aymeric was hanged, and 400 citizens were burned at the stake in the biggest bonfire of the Crusade.
Building of the Cathedral started in 1255, after the ‘heresy’ had been stamped out. It predates by 30 years its cousin, the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile in Albi, now a world heritage site and reputedly the largest brick building in the world. While Sainte-Cécile might be bigger and more famous, we prefer Saint Alain 😉. Many of its features are typical of the Southern French Gothic style of architecture–fortress-like walls and an octagonal tower (of which the most famous example can be seen in Toulouse at the Basilique de St-Sernin), but Saint-Alain boasts other features, including a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ (which we heard in a solo by young organist George Gillow) and the only jacquemart in the south west. This little wooden man with his metal hammer appears every hour on the hour to strike the time on the cathedral clock, a descendant of the jacquemart first entrusted with this important task in 1604.
As we sat there listening to the music and admiring the restored murals and frescoes, I marvelled yet again at the power of the arts to bring people together and remind them of a shared heritage which transcends time and conflicts. The moment was both powerful and poignant: a British choirmaster conducting a French choir, young choristers singing in German, French, English and Latin, the music of Mendelssohn, Bach, Rachmaninov, the artistry of the two Italian brothers who painted the extraordinary grisaille murals. The 21st century audience–old and young, city folks and country folk, believers and at least one pagan (me)–had all come together in a small town marked by terrible religious and military persecution, to listen, to look, to reflect: taking time to remember what’s really important in life.
To all faithful blog readers, sincere wishes for a warm and jolly Christmas and a New Year bringing better prospects and hope to all, especially those in distress and those in need.
Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année from the Cowshed!
P.S. Six degrees of separation…on the cover of the summer programme of Pastel en scène is a photo of Poppy Beddoe, founder of The Temple Ensemble, who performed here in August at the Mediathèque Guiraude (named after the Lady). Poppy has a strong connexion with Cambridge, the city in which Mark Opstad was an organist and where, in another life, I used to walk down the hill to listen to another choir at Christmas, this one raising their voices to the stunning fan-vaulted ceiling of King’s College Chapel, built two hundred years after its French relative in Lavaur. King’s College Choir this year celebrates its 100th birthday. The centenary CD can be found here, the CDs of the Maîtrise–Slava and Noël Français are available from : email@example.com. The beautiful book “Lavaur: Une Nouvelle Capitale aux portes de Toulouse was a gift from la Famille Bermond when we first arrived here in 2011. Merci!