Saturday, March 22, 2014

City Hall

I love City Halls. There they sit, center stage, anchoring their town with their size, style, elegance, and dignity. Within the city of Paris, there are 20! Each arrondissement has its own "Mairie" (City Hall), and its own Mayor and Corporation, all of them tending to the needs of the residents of their particular neighborhood. Here in the 2nd Arrondissement, our Mayor, Jacques Boutault (Green Party), has won our undying gratitude for fighting off an effort to install a "McDo" (McDonalds) at the top of the rue Montorgeuil!

And then there is the Hôtel de Ville de Paris, a city hall to end all city halls, bordered by the River Seine on one side and the rue de Rivoli on the other.  We recently took a tour of the inside of the building, not normally open to the public, and got quite swept up in its dramatic history.

The site has been the seat of city government since the 14th century, when Etienne Marcel acquired a modest building, "Maison aux Piliers", and set up the first municipal assembly comprised of merchants who held a monopoly on everything that went up and down the river.

The Paris coat-of-arms still displays the boat emblem that dates back to that period. The square in front of city hall, known now as Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, was for centuries called Place de Grève. Today, the word "grève" is greeted with shudders and moans. It usually means some group is going on strike and life in the city will be disrupted. Ironically, back then, "grève" meant a meeting place for employers and day laborers looking for work!

Construction began in the mid-16th century to replace the "Maison aux Piliers" with a city hall more worthy of Paris and its citizens. Designed by Boccador and Pierre Chambiges, the handsome Renaissance building opened its doors in 1628 during the time of Louis XIII.

150 years later, during the French Revolution, pitched battles were fought outside the Hôtel de Ville, dramatically captured in this painting by Jean Victor Schnetz.

When the French Revolution began, the Hôtel de Ville became a symbol of the freedom of Paris. This painting depicts the first mayor of Paris, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, presenting Louis XVI with a tricolor cockade, combining the white of the Bourbons with the red and blue of Paris, on 17 July 1789 -- just three days after the storming of the Bastille! At that point, Louis maybe thought he was going to "ride out" this turbulent situation, unscathed...

Well, we all know how that worked out! And turbulent times continued to find expression in and around the Hôtel de Ville. In this painting by Felix Philippoteaux, the writer, poet and politician Alfonse de Lamartine - a staunch Republican - is seen declaring the Second Republic of France in 1848.

Alas, power swings continued throughout 19th century France, from Republic to Monarchy to Republic. To me, the most shocking events followed the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, when those who supported the Commune took over the center of the city, proclaimed yet another Republic, and chose the Hôtel de Ville as their headquarters. Then came a harsh five-month siege. As the anti-Commune troops approached the city in May 1871, the Communards systematically burned to the ground as many of the Royal symbols as they could during what's known as the "semaine sanglante" -- the Palace des Tuileries, the Palace de St. Cloud, the Cour des Comptes, and others. In some kind of final desperate act, they also set ablaze the Hôtel de Ville. All existing records from the French Revolution were lost, along with priceless works of art by David, Géricault, Delacroix, and others.

When the dust finally settled, Parisians seemed to be most devastated and saddened by the loss of the Hôtel de Ville. Within a couple of years, architects were invited to submit plans to rebuild. The winner, Théodore Ballu, proposed a building very similar to the old one. Work began immediately and by the end of the 19th century the grand building we see today was completed.

On our tour of the reception rooms, it was clear that no detail or expense had been spared on the interior decorations. The Grande Salle des Fêtes stretches the length of a football field, lit by dazzling Baccarat crystal chandeliers...

...with beautifully painted ceiling panels, depicting an invitation to the ball, music, dance, flowers and perfume, all surrounded by loads of ornate gold and interspersed with the words "liberté, égalité, fraternité"...

Around the border all the regions of France are shown. You can see Lyonnais in this photo and then to the right, the colony of Algeria.

The adjacent Salon Georges Bertrand is devoted to rural life. At the end of the 19th century 80% of the population were farmers. This lavish wood-panelled room is dedicated to them.

In the center of the ceiling is this stunning homage to the farmer...

...whilst in niches around the room, statues and other decorations celebrate wine, fishing and hunting. And there's that golden boat symbol again, above the marble statue, just to remind us of the origins of this grand building site.

Although these lavish reception rooms are not open to the public, there are other parts of the building that are. Two large spaces offer free admission to some excellent art exhibitions. Currently, we have enjoyed a beautiful show displaying the works of the Hungarian-born photographer Brassaï, who more than anyone captured the soul of Paris in his black and white images.

In the other space, "Fusillé pour l'exemple" a much more sober exhibition, looks at the brutal life in the trenches during WWI, when for a long time, officers had a free rein to shoot deserters or soldiers who would not obey orders, with little or no judicial oversight. In this the centenary of that "war to end all wars" there are many shows around town documenting this anniversary.

The current Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanöe, is stepping down this month after 12-plus years in office. In fact tomorrow, Sunday, Parisians go to the polls to elect a new Mayor, and for the first time it will be a woman! Either Anne Hidalgo (socialist candidate, like M. Delanöe) or Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (conservative candidate) will take over the reins. The public doesn't vote directly for the mayoral candidate of their choice. They vote for City Council members, and it is they who then choose the Mayor. According to polls, Anne Hidalgo has the edge, although a run-off next weekend is expected.

Whoever wins will have a tough act to follow. From his official seat in the Hôtel de Ville, Bertrand Delanöe gained fame quickly through implementing immensely popular programs, like the Velib bicycles, the Auto-lib cars, "Paris-Plages" every summer, when the banks of the Seine are closed off to traffic and are turned into beaches, with palm trees, umbrellas, games and activities for those families who cannot afford to go away on vacation. In the winter, he turns the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville into an ice skating rink, and in the summer, voilà, it's beach volley ball!

And all the time, the stately building, with its long and frequently bloody history, looks down, and seems content. Long may it be so!

À bientôt!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"If music be the food of love, play on..."

A new discovery for me this year is the cluster of buildings up at La Villette (the former slaughterhouse district of the 19th arrondissement) that consists of institutions all devoted to music. One of François Mitterand's "Grands Projets", it was designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc, and opened in 1995.

Folded into one part of this sprawling complex is the eye-popping Musée de la Musique. Had it existed in the time of Duke Orsino (who famously uttered the quoted lines above), he might have happily spent the rest of his life there (all the while still pining for the love of Lady Olivia, of course) -- and we would never have had the pleasure of the bewitching comedy/drama that is Shakespeare's Twelfth Night!

Thankfully, we have the play, and for those interested in some really unusual musical instruments, we have this museum that boasts a collection of close to 1,000  mostly European instruments, and mostly from the 15th to the 20th century, but including quite a few gems from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Certainly one, the lute, has been known since antiquity, brought to Europe by the Arabs and called by them "al ùd" (the wood).  But there are lutes and then there are "archiluths" like this one, with its six pairs of gut strings, that appeared in the 16th century and was largely used as a solo "tenor" instrument. I had a hard time picturing how one person could "handle" such a large and complicated instrument, let alone pluck the strings.

By the late 16th century, the "archiluth" had been joined by the "theorbo", as demand for an extended "bass" range grew. I had been given a set of headphones and a player when I entered the museum. When I punched in the code for the "theorbo", I was amazed by the large volume of sound it produced.

Turning a corner, I found myself surrounded by keyboard instruments: harpsichords, clavichords, spinets, virginals, some very plain and simple, others incredibly ornate.

This clavichord, in particular, caught my attention. From the 16th century, the elaborate decor  (possibly from the German School) depicts the Battle of Lepanto, 1571, in which the Holy League defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire in the Ionian Sea.  Over 1000 ships, galleons and other vessels, along with over 100,000 men, engaged each other furiously for five hours before victory was declared, and the Ottoman Empire was prevented from expanding further into the European part of the Mediterranean Sea.  A really important deal in its day, and recorded in many paintings. I did wonder, though, if musicians who sat down to play this glorious instrument felt obliged to play only bellicose, martial music, or if they could ignore the drama of the painting in front of them, and bring an audience gentle melodies from, say, William Byrd or Orlando Gibbons!

Then there was this Italian spinet ("épinette") from 1523, whose inscription underneath the keyboard has led historians to believe it is the oldest surviving one of its kind. The Arabian-style decoration was very popular in Venice at the time. It sat on its table, just gleaming with its dark chocolate brown veneer and sparkling white ivory.

Picking my way through the many groups of school children who were at the museum on field trips, I found myself admiring this group of 17th century guitars. Cardinal Mazarin had a big influence on their popularity amongst the aristocracy, when he hired an Italian guitarist to teach the young Louis XIV how to play this relatively easily handled instrument.

Pretty soon, suites of dances and transcriptions of operatic arias were being published, and the instruments themselves became more and more finely decorated with ivory and ebony, as well as delicately carved filigrée fretwork in the centre. The craftmanship was truly beautiful!

Then there were the obviously experimental instruments, like this violincello on the right, built by Jean-Nicholas Lambert in the 18th century. A little trapdoor in the case allowed an adjustment in the treble ranges.

In this same vein, I was sure I would find an example of an "arpeggione", a six-stringed instrument, fretted and tuned like a guitar, but bowed like a cello. It was invented sometime early in the 1800s, and Schubert wrote a beautiful sonata for it with piano accompaniment (D.821). I happen to love this piece of music! The "arpeggione" proved way too difficult to play, however, and soon vanished. Today, the Schubert work is played on the cello, although I just learned that a man named Nicolas Deletaille has apparently recently reintroduced the instrument. Here's a picture of one that I found on the web.  Deletaille is encouraging today's composers to write music for it. Perhaps, one day, an example will eventually find its way to the museum!

There were, though, several exquisite Antonio Stradivarius violins on display. He built many different kinds of instruments before devoting himself exclusively to violins and violincellos. The period 1700-1720 is known as the "golden age" of his production. Many instruments made during this time are still being played today.

I was fascinated by the molds Stradivarius employed. Such plain, basic pieces of wood, which he used as a pattern to cut and fashion his instruments, selecting woods like willow, spruce and maple, all highly varnished to a perfect finish in the final violin or cello.

In the woodwinds section, there were some astonishingly large bassoons and flute/recorders, like this "flûte à bec basse". Many of these instruments were produced by the Hotteterre family, a veritable dynasty of woodwind makers in 16th and 17th century France.

My Scottish heart swelled with pride when I read that one member of the Hotteterre family, Jacques, not only was an accomplished flautist, he also excelled on the "musette", the bagpipe! And as I turned around, there was this adorable-looking bagpipe on display. The early 18th century saw a great love for rural (folk) music, with both amateur and court musicians alike. Befitting appearances at court, some bagpipes were made from lavish materials such as silk and embroidered velvet, with the mouthpiece and lower pipe from silver and ivory.

Related to the "musette", the "vielles-à-roux", the hurdy-gurdy, also enjoyed wide popularity at the same time, drawing on the love of rural music settings. Sometimes called a "wheel fiddle", there are several fine examples in the museum. However, by the 1760s, these instruments saw a rapid decline amongst the so-called musical "congnoscenti"!

Maybe that's why, today, most bagpipe players are confined to the glens and hills of the outdoors, like on Mount Vision in Inverness, California, at the Fall Equinox! Whether Duke Orsino would have appreciated their haunting wail is another question. I suspect he would have stayed within the fascinating realms of La Musée de la Musique, whose surface I barely scratched on my visit. Clearly, I need to return one day...

Meanwhile, Spring has all of a sudden "sprung" -- trees are budding and leafing and flowering, people are in t-shirts and sandals, and the Romany flower sellers of jonquils have returned to the rue Montorgeuil, where I bought this pretty little posy this afternoon. Life is good!

À bientôt!