Alexander Meszler, Fulbright Advanced Student, 2018-19
Seated just to the side of the organ in the Chapelle Royale at the Palace of Versailles, I watched as a fellow conservatory organ student had a lesson on the chapel organ. Knowing my lesson was next, my mind anxiously cycled through admiring the beauty of the room, listening intently to the advice of my teacher, and nervously reviewing the pieces I was about to play. Amid one of these thought loops, my teacher turned to me rather suddenly and said, “look at the sky…it’s beautiful”.
Puzzled by the seemingly random observation, I tried to act collected, and looked up at the decorated ceiling which I had just been admiring and mumbled something in French resembling, “yes, of course, the painting’s colors are brilliant”. Laughing to himself, he turned back to the other student to make a few musical suggestions; her playing was already very expressive but by following his notes, she could add an extra spark of life. After he asked her to play the piece from the top, he grabbed the collection of giant skeleton keys that always accompany us to the chapel, started walking away from the organ, and gestured for me to follow. He walked briskly without a word and opened the doors toward the hall just outside the chapel. This was unusual since normally we enter and exit on the floor below using a staircase to the left of the doors we were now using.
As we walked toward the far side of the adjoining hall, I was taken aback by how grand the corridor looked when it was completely empty. To my left, I caught a glimpse of my favorite room in the château, the Salon d’Hercule and its colorful walls with its vibrantly painted ceiling for which it gets its name. Stopping at the window, he motioned again that I should join him. Looking out the window, deep pinks, reds, and dark blues filled the sky as the sun set over the grand canal. Even though it was February, perfectly pruned hedges and even a few flower beds bloomed in the foreground. Out the window to the left, the State Apartments were being cast in shadow. With the center chapel doors fully open, as they usually are, the sound of the organ flooded into the connecting rooms and seemed to accompany the setting sun. Without a word, we stood at the window contemplating the extravagance, power, beauty, and, in some strange way, the simplicity of the Versailles Château. It’s not lost on me that not everyone gets to experience Versailles like this, and as I fought back a tear, I couldn’t help but laugh remembering my comment about the ceiling just a few minutes earlier.
Outside of France, it can be exceedingly difficult to grasp the stylistic intricacies, let alone the deeper expressive character, of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French music. I can’t begin to count the number of times my teachers have told me—and for that matter, how many times I tell my own students—that music, despite being a particularly abstract art, is related to nature, architecture, painting, and everything else that humans experience. In my own teaching I constantly find myself using visual references: a picture of Chartres Cathedral to help a student invoke a sense of monumentality and immense space or, perhaps, a French garden to show the importance of symmetry and balance.
Standing at the window with the music washing over me, I experienced a rare moment of clarity. I’ve always loved seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French music, but for the first time, I could “hear” the connection to French culture. I could “hear” the gardens, the architecture, the painting, the sculpture. I don’t have a picture. I don’t even remember if my phone was with me, and it doesn’t matter. Moments like this make what musicians and artists do worth the time and effort. And, more importantly, it’s what inspires us to do it in the first place.