Anybody who’s never experienced a big pipe organ concert in a cathedral has missed something special. The pipe organ is — and has always been — the biggest and most complicated musical instrument of all. Its huge array of sound, its sheer sonic power, would make a stack of Marshall amps or heavy metal band sound puny.
Then there is the setting: cathedrals, especially the great gothic cathedrals of Paris and Chartres, the amazing monuments that house these huge musical beasts provide the perfect setting to overwhelm the senses. You don’t have to go to Europe to experience big pipe organs. New York has the St. John the Divine, LA has both Walt Disney Concert Hall and the First Congregational Church in Korea Town. Most big cities will have a big stone church and pipe organ.
I first experienced this satori when I was a student in Paris in the early 70’s. When I first attended the free 4:45 show at Notre Dame with Pierre Cochereau performing on the huge 4-keyboard organ–at the time one of the biggest in the world— I was overwhelmed by it all: the 12th century church, with its massive hand-hewn masonry, the huge stones and columns, the beautiful stained glass windows, the history, they all added to the experience of the music. Cochereau played both Bach and modern classics by Duruflé and Messaien. I broke down, blissfully overcome by the history and power of it all. Coming from Los Angeles, you don’t get the feeling of history you do in the Old World. I ate it up.
I once went to an Eastern Orthodox service at the St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church on Normandie Avenue near Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles. Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Easter according to a different calendar, so Easter comes a little later. I went with a friend from my UCLA grad school days. The church was large and byzantine; I’d never seen so much gold and ornamentation. The faithful in the pews all held candles. My friend had naturally curly hair that stuck out a little bit. In the middle of the service, her hair caught on fire from the candle behind her seat. We put it out at once but the smell was terrible. She had to get a serious haircut afterwards.
I’m planning a trip to France and will be revisiting Notre Dame for another musical feast. I look forward to it. Here is Pierre Cochereau in 1974, with images of the Notre Dame interior (incredible)