The lights dimmed in the chapel before the musicians stepped on to the altar. No central heat in chilly La Sainte-Chapelle, but we were warm enough in our coats and scarves, sitting close together on red-cushioned chairs. The ornate ceiling soared high above us, and stained-glass windows glowed like dreams, even in the darkness. How many shows have you been to in a sanctuary that was consecrated by the Pope’s legate in 1248? A place built by King Louis IX to house the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of Jesus’s Cross. Holy Relics of the Passion. The devout French ruler acquired the artifacts because he “wished to affirm his devotion to God”. We kept our voices low, as you would.
The concert was called “Noel au temps de la renaissance”. Fancy Christmas carols. Performed by a quartet: soprano, violin, harpsichord and flute (the type held vertically not horizontally). The group chose pieces from a variety of composers – Corelli, Bach, Purcell, Monteverdi, Caccini – and also included traditional carols like ‘Greensleeves’, ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘O Christmas Tree’. Half of the songs were instrumentals; the other half sung by a woman named Sophie Pattey. And all of it was beautiful.
At a performance like this in such a hallowed setting, you might expect sternness and gravity, a touch of snobbery. But the musicians were generous and lighthearted. Charles Limouse, who played flute, introduced each song in French and chatted a bit to the crowd. Though I couldn’t understand everything he said, it was clear his mood was warm and playful. The atmosphere felt neither remote nor – here comes that dreaded word for classical music – boring. And at the very end, Ms. Pattey, who had been singing in a variety of European languages, led the audience in two rounds of ‘Jingle Bells’, in English.
There’s nothing like singing carols to get me in the mood for Christmas. My collection of holiday music is extensive, and I look forward to listening to it from mid-December all the way through to New Year’s Day. But this season I experienced something different, something extraordinary.
Towards the end of the concert, Mr. Limouse stepped forward and began playing ‘Silent Night’. Solo flute. The familiar melody floated softly towards us, rising up then down then up again. Due to the chapel’s wonderful acoustics, the notes of the song carried to every corner of the room, clear and strong. Ms. Pattey then joined in, singing the lyrics in German. And in the dim and golden glow, in a place where a king and his family once worshipped in the presence of the reliques de la Passion du Christ, we were a captivated congregation. Motionless. Enthralled. Dare I say, close to holy.
We nourish our bodies with food, exercise, sex, sleep. We fill our ears and eyes with work emails, breaking news, status updates, binge TV, cat videos. For better or worse, I make no judgments, we swim in a stream of constant communication and entertainment. But how often do we get to experience stillness? A singular moment that goes right to our hearts and souls, filling us with a profound sense of possibility, hope, clarity. I believe the yogis and the life coaches and the trendsters call it mindfulness – there might even be an app – and I know the feeling is rare and elusive. I’m a little obsessed with such wonders, I guess, because they are so unexpected. Yet oftentimes these experiences, like a song in a chapel, can be the most nourishing and necessary sensations of all.
May 2016 bring you moments such as these.
Thank you for reading therockmom.
P.S. here’s a playlist, similar to the concert at La Sainte-Chapelle. Enjoy.
I wasn’t looking for this; in fact I didn’t even know I needed it. But, oh, it is very, very necessary: Mary J. Blige channeling Julie Andrews in a cover of ‘My Favorite Things’.
I know, right? It’s perfect. In her interpretation, ‘schnitzel’ and ‘strudel’ are no longer tasty dishes, but Mary’s own bittersweet memories of Bavaria! And the video, even though it looks like a quickie-shoot-for-the-marketing-department job, succeeds in showcasing her pure fabulousness, reminding us that she’s one of the few women living today who can pull off a metallic turban. Liz Taylor would be so proud.
If Beyonce is our Tina Turner, all legs and fierce fire, then Mary is our Aretha. She sings soul-first. Even though she has the power to belt each and every tune, she doesn’t need to rely on vocal histrionics to make her point. Her control and range, her ability to convey the emotion of the song, her confidence – all of these elements make her, arguably, our generation’s greatest vocalist. For more proof, listen to her version of ‘Mary, Did You Know’. As the song moves from an understated ache to a gospel revelation about the Son of God, her voice will make you a believer.
I like the fact that she’s recorded her holiday album, A Mary Christmas, with the Verve label, home of classic American singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Nina Simone. It’s where Mary belongs.
So, check out her holiday album and have yourself a very, merry Mary Christmas!