It’s early September and I’m in Auray in the northwest of France where I’m surrounded by some of the most hospitable hosts in France to-date. Cancel the Provence experience I had now twenty years ago, for it was far too long to remember it clearly.
Truth be told, I instantly fell in love with the fun-filled and high spirited attitude of the Bretons the moment I set foot on Auray’s soil — they appear to be a little less serious than their Normandy neighbors to the east. Joie de vivre is the order of the day and I learn from Auray’s deputy mayor Regine Fily who was my dinner guest one evening, that Bretons are not shy, they love a good party and they’re keen on dancing, beer and a strong Calvados late at night.
It’s ironic to find a community with such passion for living life in Brittany’s spiritual capital. My grandfather would have argued that the two go hand-in-hand however, for if you’re truly living a spiritual life, you’d be more likely to be joyous more often than not. Bretons…ahhh yes, my kind of people.
After several fabulous spiritual tours of the city, a segway ride through Auray’s beautiful outskirts, a casual but leisurely meal on Auray’s stunning Port Saint Goustan, and a more formal dinner at Hotel La Croix Blanche’s restaurant, we were invited by Auray’s mayor, Roland Gastine and guests to a private sacred organ concert at the Basilica Saint Anne.
This incredible experience was orchestrated by the Director of the Academy for Sacred Music Bruno Belliot, whose passion for sacred music was spilling over in droves. It was clearly an honor for him to be able to present such a feast to us as he proudly announced one piece after another over the course of an hour or so.
Some of the music was very sad, but also powerful and dramatic at the same time. One of the first to be played was a melancholy song which reminisced the skippers who died at sea over the years. Below, Bruno gives us a little background on some of the music, which is translated in real time by translator Angela Gilles, who I had the pleasure of sitting next to at dinner one night.
One song addressed the Virgin Mary, asking her to pray for us and yet another song was about a little girl from Ouessant, an island off the coast of Brittany. Trocata started out slowly but then slowly builds. The last piece says Bruno, would be closest to Ravel or Gershwin if played on a piano.
We then had an opportunity to make our way to the back of the basilica where the organ sat. To get there, we had to make our way up a series of stairs and through the back where priests hung their robes for daily services.
Not only was the organ waiting for us, but so was the lead organist Michel Jezot, who had a smile on his face as we approached the room. It was fairly dark in the room but just enough light shone over the organ for us to be able to see his magic fingers strum the keyboards, as he showed us a few tricks behind the scenes, all of which was translated by a woman I dined with earlier that night.
The organ is roughly 140 years old and has been recently restored. We went through knob by knob and experienced it all as he pulled some out and left others in and then changed things around for a different effect. Such fun!
I hadn’t realized it yet, but the real fun hadn’t even started yet. While I’m not an organist, I’ve been playing piano since I was around 5 and so the idea of playing around with this massive ancient structure was more than just a little enticing. When Michel handed over the keyboard, I felt a skip in my walk and a smile on my face emerging. And so, I played.
And, played some more. I suppose I could have played all night if I didn’t sense that we had to shut down the church and head home for yet another early start the next morning. It was hard to leave the organ behind — my fingers didn’t really want to stop playing. It was one of those unique experiences of a lifetime you’ll treasure for the rest of your life. I can’t thank Michel and Bruno enough for the opportunity and Mayor Gastine and his team for the invitation.
I had an opportunity to learn a bit more about Bruno’s work as the Director of the Academy for Sacred Music & Arts. It was apparently founded in 1999 when it was called the Centre de Musique Sacree. Now extended to include art and architectural heritage, the organization promotes all three with an emphasis on their regional importance. The Academy organizes a concert season which lasts throughout the year, including music by local musicians in partnership with professional ensembles, such as the Orchestre de Bretagne, Stardivaria (baroque ensemble from Nantes), and Melisme (s), a professional vocal ensemble. More information can be found at www.academie-musique-arts-sacres.fr.
They also have a peripatetic organ school and teach the bombarde, a Breton outdoor wind instrument related to the oboe family. You’ll hear the bombarde being played in the video below by Francois Goutte.
I shot this video during the concert so you can get an idea of just how special the experience was for us non Bretons. Beyond memorable, the sacred music nearly brought me to tears as I was swept away by its sad, but deep and intense notes that cried with the wind, screeched to the rain and purred when the sun finally sank at the end of a long but lovely Brittany fall day.
The below video shows us back stage, where Michel Jezot not just entertains us, but educates us. You’re in for a real treat.
Read my piece on a walk through Spiritual Auray as well as our general article about Auray’s history and culture. Also check out our Brittany/Normandy food & wine section (and posts), as well as our general section on Brittany/Normandy. And, of course for the passionate about all things France, we have quite a bit of content in our France section as well as Paris.
Note: I was hosted by the French Tourism Board on this trip, but all opinions expressed are entirely my own.