Trumpeting melodies, whispering trills, cascading sharps and flats lure Parisians, tourists, even non-music lovers to Saint-Sulpice, the second largest House of God in Pairs.
Arrive in time for the 11:30 AM organ recital. At its conclusion, if you scurry like la souris, you’ll be rewarded with eye-level views of towering architecture previously glimpsed from ground level. You’ll also develop an up-close-and-personal appreciation for one of Europe’s most beautiful and famous pipe organs.
Enter from Place Saint-Sulpice in the 6th arrondissement, on the Left Bank. Heart-thrumming tremolos and fugues echo throughout the nave, causing you to think you’ve been caught in an ecclesiastical thunderstorm. The music seems to make the figures of Eugene Delacroix’s last works come alive. In the Chapel of Angels, view his wall frescos, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel and Heliodorus Being Driven from the Temple, and on the ceiling, Saint Michael Defeating the Devil.
Fans congregate near this chapel at the back of the church before a brown wooden door wedged between columns. At the recital’s completion the battered portal to the organ loft opens. Begin scaling the spiral staircase and notice the odor associated with fine antiques: a mixture of damp stone, old wood, and dust that has been settling for more than two centuries.
While your calves recover from the steep assent, peek at the room filled with teeter-totter-sized eighteenth-century bellows. Envision the physiques of the five men who powered the organ in the days before electricity.
As you approach the room housing the organ keyboard, peer between a few of the 6,600 pipes. This vantage point enables you to look down upon—instead of up at—the baroque pulpit, chancel, and altar. You won’t have to crane your neck to examine the Corinthian capitals supporting soaring arches and buttresses. You’ll want to reach out and caress the robes of the statues—created by French sculptor, Claude Michel Clodion—perched before the pipes.
Imagine keeping track of the five levels of keyboards and the 100 stops of the command center. Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, wanting to unite the original French Classical built by Clicquot in 1781, and the new romantic style, conserved much of the previous organ in creating the present instrument in 1862.
Beginning with Charles-Marie Widor, famous instrumentalists have played this masterpiece for more than two centuries. Sketches of them appear amid their photographs with visitors like Albert Schweitzer on walls in the gallery and chamber behind the console room.
Marcel Dupre began the Sunday recitals and visitations while he was organist from 1934–71, and, lucky for us church mice, the tradition continues.