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20.6.12

À mon chevet: 'Bel-Ami'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
Suddenly, the Swiss guard struck the pavement three times with the wooden part of his halberd. All those assembled turned with a long swish of skirts and a scraping of chairs. The young woman appeared, on her father's arm, in the bright light of the opened portal. She still looked like a child's doll, a white toy with orange flowers in her hair. She stayed for a few moments at the entrance, and then when she took her first step into the nave, the great organ pushed forth a powerful cry, announcing the entrance of the bride with its great metal voice. [...] All the while, the great organ was singing, pushing through the enormous edifice the purring rhythmic accents of its shining throats, crying out to heaven the joy and the pain of mankind. [...]

The bishop ended his oration. A priest clothed in a golden stole climbed to the high altar, and the great organ began again to celebrate the glory of the newlyweds. Soon it was shooting forth a prolonged clamor, enormous, swelling like waves, so sonorous and so powerful that it seemed it must be raising up the vault and making it jump to expand into the blue sky. Its vibrant noise filled the entire church, made flesh and soul shiver. Then all of a sudden it calmed; fine notes, alert, ran through the air, tickling the ear like soft breaths; these were little, gracious songs, tiny, bouncing, that fluttered like birds; and suddenly, this coquettish music broadened anew, again becoming terrifying in strength and breadth, as if a grain of sand was being transformed into a whole world.

Then human voices rose up, passing over their bowed heads. Vauri and Landeck, from the Opéra, were singing. Incense spread a fine odor of benzoin, and on the altar the divine sacrifice was accomplished; the God-Man, at the call of his priest, came down to earth to consecrate the triumph of the Baron Georges du Roy. Bel-Ami, on his knees next to Suzanne, had lowered his head. He felt at that moment almost like a believer, almost religious, full of thanks for the divinity that had thus favored him, that had treated him with such respect. And without knowing exactly whom he was addressing, he thanked it for his success.

-- Guy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami, pp. 565, 567, 570-71 / (my translation)
These passages come from Georges Du Roy's final wedding, which takes place in the Église de la Madeleine in Paris. At the time when this wedding was taking place, the grand organ in that church was rather new, completed by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1846. Although it does not quite fit with the time frame of the story, it seems likely that Maupassant, in describing the music at this most magnificent wedding, had in mind the playing of none other than Camille Saint-Saëns, who was organist at La Madeleine from 1857 to 1877. What the characters are hearing, in fact, sounds like one of Saint-Saëns' epic improvisations, which were the talk of Paris. Liszt, who enjoyed a life-long friendship of mutual admiration with Saint-Saëns, wrote to him, "You use the organ as an orchestra in an incredible way. The most proficient organists in all countries have only to take their hats off to you." When Maupassant moved to Paris as a young man, working as an impoverished clerk (much as Georges Duroy first appears in Bel-Ami), it was at the tail end of Saint-Saëns' tenure at La Madeleine.

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