20 May 2004

Choirs in France II

"Le Mont-Saint-Michel apparaît ... comme une chose sublime, une pyramide merveilleuse."
(Mont-Saint-Michel seems like a thing sublime, a marvelous pyramid.)
Victor Hugo, 1865

When Jane was about six or seven, her favorite storybook character was Babar the King of the Elephants. She has many fond memories of being read to by her mother as they snuggled in her bed. The original Babar books were in French, and the copies Jane had featured illustrations by the original author. The words below the pictures were in English, but the speech and thought bubbles inside the illustrations were in French. She always made her mother tell her what the French words said. In one of Jane’s favorite Babar stories, the elephant king takes his family to Mont-St.-Michel. Ever since she first heard about the island that was sometimes not an island, she had wanted to go there.

Mont-Saint-Michel has often been called la Merveille de l’Occident, the Wonder of the West, and it’s easy to see why. One can see the island rising on the coast of Normandy from at least 45 kilometers away. The abbey was built by Haubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708, after he had three dreams of St. Michael the Archangel. In his dreams, St. Michael told him to build a sanctuary dedicated to the Archangel on a high place, and, in the third dream, the angel touched Haubert’s forehead and supposedly drilled a hole. He chose the nearby Mont Tombe, and in the 14th century, the entire island was fortified. Today, friars and sisters from “Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem” inhabit the abbey.

As we rounded a bend on the highway that followed the Norman/Breton coast, the bus slowed. Jane thought it might just be her imagination working in slow motion as she caught her first glimpse of the island-fortress-village-abbey, but actually the bus driver was waiting for some extremely woolly sheep to decide whether they were going to go all the way across the road or just turn back. The sheep that graze in the fields there are raised for their meat and, when they appear on a menu, are called pre-salted mutton. The grass has absorbed salt from the water that seeps under the fields, and the bodies of the sheep absorb salt from the grass they graze on. They have black faces and white wool, or as close to white as wool that's still on an active sheep will ever get. They're pretty dirty animals.

The abbey church, in which we were going to sing Mass, is at the very top of the mount. It's a long climb (some 200-odd steps), and especially long for students carrying choir robes. Jane was glad she only had her lightweight polyester schola robe; the university choir robes are heavy satin-lined velvet. However, Lizzy didn’t notice that she had two robes; she was too busy looking around. Jane did think, as we unloaded the white schola robes from their protective bags in the sandy parking lot, that the robes might be more the color of those sheep's wool by the end of the trip. (The choir robes are, as Lizzy pointed out, Virgin blue with white satin collar and sleeve lining and were probably in just as much danger from sand and dirt as the schola robes.) We trudged up the steep, narrow, shop-lined path through the village and then the stairs through the abbey complex, with the other tourists staring at the 42 strange Americans carrying robes. A sister in a white veil and blue habit that looked almost like very soft denim met us at the gate where other tourists had to give tickets to gain passage. She led us to the Romanesque/Gothic church.

We have to say Romanesque/Gothic because it really is two styles. The main body of the church is Romanesque, very simple and not too tall. The sanctuary, though, was built later to replace the one which crumbled and fell into the sea when its foundational crypt collapsed. It's Gothic in style, more ornate with a much taller ceiling. There wasn't really a choir, but we sang from between the sanctuary and a side altar, behind the pillars. The acoustics were decent. The schola sang a prelude, and the choir sang at Communion. At the offertory, a sister played a stringed instrument the name of which I don't know. It was shaped like a hammered dulcimer, but she played it with finger picks (maybe it was a zither?). It sounded pretty, though Jane would rather have heard the organ, which wasn't played at all at that Mass.

A handful of monks and sisters sang for the Mass. The whole Eucharistic prayer was sung by the presiding priest (presumably the Abbot) in French, according to Gregorian formulas, but the proper and ordinary chants were sung in French in what our director later described as sort of neo-Byzantine chant. Some of it was in harmony, and we were impressed by the way the just a few monks and sisters made such beautiful music. Some of them must have been singing their parts alone, which can be difficult for non-professional musicians.

After the Mass, we had a little time to wander the church and village before we started our guided tour. In addition to the many souvenir shops, there is one small bookshop which is run by the sisters themselves. They have Bibles and prayerbooks and even some simple children’s books based on The Little Prince, which Lizzy took delight in translating. Of course, they had CDs from our heroes over at Solesmes.

Next was our tour of the Abbey with a local guide. Probably the most memorable part of the tour was one room that, according to our guide, served no purpose as far as we know. It’s long and narrow, and the columns are built in two different styles. Some of the ones in the back of the room arch into the ceiling and continue into the opposite wall gracefully, but the first columns just end where they reached the wall, almost as if they had been left unfinished so the builders could play with the newer style.

Then, we piled back into the bus and headed into Laval. We were impressed by their courage to serve salmon to people from the Northwest. For dessert, we had "a floating island:" a bit of meringue floating in creme anglais. Because her table decided that she spoke the most French, Lizzy was the designated wine-buyer; it was her job to decipher the wine list and pester the poor waitress about their "vins du mois." Apparently, one of the other hotel guests decided that Lizzy was a waitress, and he tried to order an aperitif from her. After a short stroll around the neighborhood, we returned to the hotel and watched Moulin Rouge. It was in French except for the songs, which were in English but with French subtitles. Not long after the end of the movie, we all turned in, since we had to get up early the next morning to drive to Solesmes.

Coming Soon: Our visit to l'Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes!

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