Tuesday, July 14, 2015

There's a smell about this church

There's a smell about this church. From the South-East corner of the yard of the Abbaye de Saint-Riquier the breeze tastes sweet. The flowers which line the lawn are in full bloom yet there aren't enough of them, to my estimate, which could produce such a presence.

The Gothic abbey is encircled on three sides by a structure which struck me to be of 19th century French design. Beginning adjacent to the ornate facade, the later building surrounds the south and east sides of the abbey in a rectangular fashion. It has a simplicity to it: its long, narrow design with windowed walls are uniform, only lightly accented. The abbey's massive construction with flying buttresses, gargoyles, and other decorations make for a stark contrast.

The space between the structures on the south side forms a long and narrow yard which acts as a buffer between the two edifices. Here two great trees stand, further compartmentalizing ones exposure to the open air. Though small, the yard has its own climate. The breeze is fresh, yet it is no different in temperature than the still air. The walls around the yard creat a chamber for which the birdsong, along with the sounds of leaves rustling, are accentuated. Furthermore, the narrowness of the yard empowered the ancient architecture: demanding attention while drawing the eye higher and higher to the point where it met the sky, however limited the view might be.


This past Friday, the Abbaye de Saint-Riquier served as the venue to a concert commemorating the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV by The Millenium Orchestra and Chamber Choir of Namur, Belgium, joined by Cappella Mediterranea (directed by Leonardo García Alarcón), and Psallentes (directed by Hendrik Vanden Abeele). Interspersed with plainchant and high renaissance polyphony by Psallentes, Capella and Millenium performed Jean-Baptiste Lully's Dies Irae, and De Profundis. Lully's constant exploration of the plethora of instrumental and vocal colours available to him, in combination with a dense rhetorical style incorporating musical graces and dance rhythms contrasted greatly with the music of his ancestors. 

In fact, attending the concert was not unlike the spatial experience one would be struck with upon exiting to the abbey's south yard. In comparison, the two centerpieces (the abbey and Lully's grand motets), though ornate, had a crucial difference in their direction. Whereas the Gothic architecture directed the eye to the heavens, Lully's grand motets remained very much grounded in the world of men and it was that those great works were laced between plainchant and high polyphony which made their purpose so poignant. Fluent in the language of baroque expression (sumptuous, ornate, and a distillation of the study of rhetoric and the passions), the motets were a display of power: of God, of the Church, of the figure of the Sun King and the Queen Marie-Thérèse. Their purpose was not to create a transcendental experience: it moved the hearts by appealing to the senses, not the spirit.

It was a feast, there is no doubt about it. But it was much more subtle and complex if one were to have walked in my shoes that day. It's hard to imagine a more fitting venue/program combination than this: where both the ear and the eye could be met with the same formal structure, yet one affecting the body - the other the soul.

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