Discovering the organs at the heart of Toulouse
Elizabeth Davis enjoys a recital in the city's Basilica of Saint Sernin
Each year in October the organs of Toulouse get their moment in the spotlight at the annual Toulouse les Orgues festival. So in my first visit to the ‘pink city’ (so called because of the red brick from which many of its buildings are constructed), hearing some of the city’s magnificent instruments was high on my list of priorities.
And I didn’t have to wait long. On my first morning in the town I wandered into Notre Dame de la Dauraude – a 19th-century church that opens on to the river Garonne – to hear the organ, built by Émile Poirier and Nicolas Lieberknecht in 1861, in full flight.
The church was otherwise empty and it felt like I’d happened upon my own private performance.
For my second encounter of the day, however, I was far from alone. Toulouse’s Saint Sernin Basilica (left) is a majestic Romanesque church dedicated to Toulouse’s first bishop who was killed by the Romans in 250 AD by being tied to a bull and dragged through the streets.
The oldest sections of the modern building date from the 11th century but the no-less dramatic Cavaillé-Coll organ is a much more recent addition. Built in 1889, the instrument nevertheless seems perfectly at home in its colossal medieval surroundings.
I heard it in action at an early-evening recital, just as the hot Toulouse spring day was beginning to cool. Organist Jean-Baptiste Dupont launched into a performance of Vierne’s Organ Symphony No. 2, a work of lush virtuosity and unashamed drama.
The Cavaillé-Coll organ brought in a steady stream of tourists from the surrounding streets, who came into the church gazing open-mouthed at the source of the phenomenal sound.
But Dupont’s performance wasn’t just about showing off the organ’s phenomenal power – although there were a fair amount of chords that you could feel reverberate in your ribcage. This was also a beguiling performance of Vierne’s lush melodies and delicate virtuoso flourished.
The smell of incense lingered from the day’s mass, the daylight faded and as the final chords of the Symphony sounded the audience were awe-struck by one of the world’s finest organs in a truly breathtaking church.
To find out more about the musical life of Toulouse, pick up a copy of the July issue of BBC Music Magazine – on sale 12 June.