I saw this strange looking creature the day before I left Paris. It is a 17th century tenor cornett shaped like a serpent and with a dragon's head. It is just one of thousands of exhibits in Paris's musical museum, which must surely be one of the best in the world...
...yes, in the world. But I had never heard of it before I went to Paris. It was only when I idly decided to visit La Villette that I discovered that the city of Paris has been assembling a huge musical centre called the Cité de la Musique in the park for about thirty years. Not only the museum but the Paris Conservatoire music school, lots of venues for music in different genres, the huge Zénith de Paris auditorium and the striking, futuristic Philharmonie concert hall are together offering almost every type of music imaginable.
By any standards it is amazing, so you can imagine my surprise that not one single person I've ever discussed Paris with has ever mentioned it. Maybe I'm not speaking to enough musical people - or enough Parisians, since La Villette park was thronged with people and they all seemed very happy.
So, I'll tell you a bit, so at least you will know to go there if you're ever in Paris! Above is the Philharmonie concert hall - extremely striking, though not, I'll admit, very beautiful, at least not to me. Alien, blocky and slightly reptilian are the words that spring to mind, because it is clad in steel scales and looks sort of organic. The design of the scales is inspired by an interlocking pattern in the style of M.C.Escher which reflect the light in many different ways, and its odd shape offers hundreds of different photo opportunities depending on where you stand. If you're interested in the revolutionary and super-adaptable construction of the Philharmonie, take a look at the builder's website. The acoustics of the main hall are said to be among the world's finest.
As for the musical museum, no description can do it justice. I couldn't absorb it all, but I do remember certain things in particular, like this golden harpsichord with lid decorated in pastoral scenes,...
...and several of the musical curiosities, like the dragon headed cornett in the first picture, and a "Bible" organ, or regal, which stood rather incongruously with the 18th century instruments. The regal was a sort of portable organ, popular from about 1500 onwards and probably a bit out of fashion by the time this one was made. It has a distinctive buzzing sound and the bellows of the Bible regal, pumped by a helper, are thought to resemble a large family Bible. I can't find a film of this instrument in action, but here's a clip of a self-pumping regal in case you're interested in hearing one.
I also liked the museum's explanation about the origins of various types of music, and was fascinated by its display of French revolutionary songs, of which the most famous is of course the national anthem of France, the Marseillaise.
What a song that is. I've always thought it's different from other national anthems. Passionate and blood-curdling, with a wonderful tune, it was written to stir emotion, and does it incredibly well. Watch this blurry clip of a fine performance by Mireille Mathieu. I'm not French but there are certain politicians I wouldn't like to be near with a pitchfork in my hand, and Mirielle's version of the Marseillaise in my ears... and I'm only half joking.
It seems that the Marseillaise was controversial from the start. It was banned by the French authorities for quite a lot of the 19th century as being too inflammatory, and only became the national anthem in 1879, after the final Emperor of France had been kicked out and the terrible Siege of Paris had happened. Today, it still stirs unease and controversy, particularly its references to "impure blood" which have been taken up by French racists. Despite all this, I still greatly prefer the Marseillaise to our own national anthem. Britain's "God Save the King" has a plodding, secondhand tune and is all about wishing good luck to your betters in the hope some benefit will rub off onto you. It does its job as a national anthem, of course, but I am glad that the other part of me is Irish, as I definitely prefer the Irish national anthem. Amhrán na bhFiann sounds pleasant, almost friendly, even though it is about Ireland's hard won fight for freedom.
National anthems carry such a weight on them, don't they? What do you think about your national anthem?
Anyway, to get back to the park.....we spent a day and a half there, and as well as seeing the museum we looked around the other musical venues, an exhibition hall, and many shops, cafes and bars in a huge 19th century iron and glass structure which was Paris's main abattoir back in the day.
The Paris canal runs through the park, and is packed with popular little electric pleasure boats which glide silently to and fro.
As you see above, the weather was grey during much of our visit, but when evening fell, and the lights shone out, the park became more peaceful and relaxed - so long as you could dodge the bikes shooting along the cycle tracks.
The atmosphere was noticeably multi racial, and very good humoured. As we wandered around we saw local people gathering to play their own music and do their own dances in the pathways and on the grass - a large group of Africans singing with drums and trumpets, then another group of drummers, of several different races. then some Indonesians practising their own elegant style to the sound of a boom box standing by their picnic cloth. We explored a wood full of mirrors (a strange and fascinating place) found a carousel and little fairground, and had fun tracking down bits of a giant sculpture of a deconstructed bike. A giant saddle here, a huge mudguard there, sticking out of the grass and surrounded by picnicking familes and couples lazing about.
We also puzzled over some remarkable playgrounds for the children. Perhaps I should know what the one below is, but I didn't. The kids had been playing some kind of organised game on it, and you can just see the referee's chair in the middle.
On one of the days, a group of stunt cars paid a visit, and drove around very slowly for no apparent reason except to draw crowds - very exciting! (Just in case you're wondering, the car shown below was stationary)
We didn't see the equestrian centre or science museum, and learned that Géode, the IMAX cinema, was closed indefinitely. But we did find allotments full of veggies and rare breed sheep grazing beneath the trees.
And there were so many interesting little touches. A display of expressive musical sculptures about how it feels to make music (They weren't easy to photograph, but I hope you can get the idea.)
I looked up La Villette in some Paris tourist literature. It was referred to as "off the beaten track." If I had still been travel writing for a living, I'd be wondering why the park isn't promoted more, so it stops being "off the beaten track." It's not that far out of the centre, and there's excellent public transport to its surrounding areas. Admittedly, the neighbourhoods around it seem run down but felt safe enough with pleasant little local shops and cafes and a nice Sunday market intermingled with the fast food joints and scruffy barbers. And there were signs that some parts were going up in the world, attracting artists and other creative people - as well they should, with all that music around. The street art was eye popping, and I was pleased to see several wall paintings celebrating the remarkable Josephine Baker, who lived in Paris for many years and I am sure would have loved the park in every way.
And if these brick pillars interspersed with Lego aren't the work of creatives, I don't know what is.
We've been back in London for ages now, but do plan to return to La Villette, to finish touring the music museum and, I hope, attend a concert or two. I won't stay in the same Airbnb that we used, which I am sorry to say was ghastly, but there are cheap chain hotels nearby which have everything you need.
*Oh, and if you would like to hear what a cornett sounds like, please go here on Youtube. For the first 33 seconds of this clip, Alexander Kerschhofer plays the basic sound of a treble cornett. After 33 seconds you start to hear how a cornett sounds when playing in a group, which it was intended to do. I have always liked strange old musical instruments and really look forward to hearing and seeing some more before too long.