A stroll round Paris's Montparnasse cemetery
Oliver Condy explores one of the French capital's most famous and picturesque cemeteries, the final resting place of Saint-Saëns, Franck and Cavaillé-Coll
A stroll round Parisian cemeteries is never less than enlightening – the main three, Père Lachaise, Montmartre and Montparnasse, house the graves of enough great historical figures from the worlds of science, literature, industry, art and music to satisfy even those with only minutes to spare.
I lived and studied music in Paris for a couple of years back in the ’90s , but never got round to visiting the Montparnasse cemetery. I put that right last weekend during a trip to the French capital; here are some snaps of what I discovered during my hour or two on one perishingly cold March morning…
It’s interesting to see how small this grave is, given the size of many of the surrounding ones (see the Saint-Saëns family tomb below). Aristide Cavaillé-Coll was France’s foremost 19th-century organ builder, particularly feted for his grand, symphonic organs in Notre Dame, St Sulpice and down in Rouen in the Cathedral of St Ouen. Hundreds of his instruments are still in use today, but the firm no longer exists. In fact, Aristide was notoriously bad with money, and his firm, which struggled throughout his life, survived him by a mere 40 years, closing as World War Two swept across Europe. Cavaillé-Coll died a poor man in 1899.
One of France’s greatest composers, Saint-Saëns was a hero in his own time (and, as organist at La Madeleine, played one of Cavaillé-Coll’s true masterpieces). Towards the end of his life, the French government awarded him the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur in recognition of his musical achievements, one of which was his extraordinary keyboard technique – he was said, by Liszt, to be the world’s finest organist, and was regarded as a sight-reader ne plus ultra. When he died from pneumonia, in 1921, he was given a state funeral, which goes some way to explaining the extravagance of his family mausoleum…
Strictly Belgian, the French nevertheless took organist and composer César Franck to their hearts. His grave, hidden away to the east of the cemetery (it took some searching to find him) is an imposing block of stone, simply engraved with his name and a bronze by the great sculptor Auguste Rodin. Franck’s place in the history of French music was assured not just by his terrific works (Symphony in D minor, Violin Sonata, Organ Chorales and more) but also by his mentoring and nurturing of the next generation of French composers, including d’Indy, Chausson, Vierne and Duparc. Franck died on 8 November 1890 as a result of complications following a chest infection.
Also in the Montparnasse cemetery:
Oliver Condy is editor of BBC Music Magazine