I had planned to go hear the organs in the Dom on Sunday, but I was unable to get to sleep Saturday night until about sunrise (which is about bedtime CDT), and thus the Sunday morning services were over by the time I woke up. But here it was 7:pm and as I exited the train station the church bells were tolling for dollars, announcing an impending service. So in I went, and the church had been roped off for the service, with visitors being kept back by the door and worshipers allowed past to the pews (the building is almost cartoonishly immense, so there's plenty of space for everyone). I wanted to hear the organs, and specifically I would have liked to wander around and hear from different acoustic vantage points. But I don't imagine they'd sign off on that motive, and I certainly would not represent myself as a worshiper. But even that doesn't quite quell the dilemma.
It's hard for me to overstate my sense of conflict here: the building itself is simply magnificent, breathtaking. It's so immense, so grand, so improbable that one stands in absolute awe. It's something you'd pay to see (and indeed we all have, since they don't pay a dime in taxes). I'm always put off by the sacrifices made by so many poor people that have enabled the building to exist--they lived horrid lives made more horrid by (among other things) enforced fealty to the local church authorities, repaid only with assurances that they were buying themselves in good with their glorious imaginary friend. But in this case the world certainly got something for their sacrifice. Humanity would surely be poorer without structures like this one--and I daresay I can't imagine a secular motivation that would get one of these built, let alone hundreds of them.
The priests who were screening folks at the control were jovial fellows, happy to have visitors but keen to keep the service dignified and unspoiled by the noisy gawkers. They are in the business of propagating a thing which I think is, in the main, harmful and detrimental to humanity's progress at the least, and actively evil at its worst; but where the rubber meets the road they seem like a bunch of reasonably happy guys just doing their jobs--at a glance, a perfect example of good people carrying someone else's poisoned water. I realize that their stewardship of the building, and the respect of the parishoners who pay the bills, these things are responsible for keeping the building in repair and immaculate. Without them, the building would have fallen in on itself centuries ago. So there's the building itself, of which I'll have more to say shortly.
And then there's the music, which is of course my life's chief irony: my first passion is for music which comes from my most loathed source. But, standing in the back of the immense Dom, it makes its own best argument when it begins to play. It quickly reaffirms that the building and the instrument are a serendipitous union; there's a reason that the organ has gained a foothold as the proper sound for this acoustic (though let's take a moment here to remember the church's early opposition to the organ as vulgar and satanic). The Dom's two organs are linked together, and are quite able to fill the space with powerful, brain-shaking sound, and on this occasion the organist played with confidence and knowledge of his instrument, if not especially with inspiration or musical daring (such a shame that Catholics cannot avail themselves of the brilliant chorales and other works by Bach, who was *gasp* a Lutheran, to say nothing of all the magnificent French music which simple pride of nation dictates must keep out of the regular service). The couple hundred parishoners sang along gamely, but the space is so immense that they were almost inaudible; it needs the organs to make the music heard and felt.
(The whole instrument is suspended from the ceiling by cables. Just don't look down as you step in.)
My conflict is that I feel I ought to contribute to the setting and the music which I so love, and yet it feels like a betrayal of what I feel most strongly about to give money to a church--especially a big, rich one. If I could give to an organ fund--and be assured it would not make its way into the Sunday School pool or assist the Pope with his ludicrous and deadly "family planning" efforts--I could happily give a few Euros. (As I write this, I'm listening to Charles Krigbaum's recording of Widor's Third Organ Symphony, recorded, ironically, in Yale's Woolsey Hall, perhaps a heaven-sent reminder that great organ music might still exist without the church.) As it was, I bought a CD of the organs from the gift shop. That seems as clear a tailored message as the institution will allow me to send.
Then I decided Monday that I ought to pay the $3.50 and scale the unending spiral stone staircase up the Dom's South spire. The brochure says the spires are 516' tall, and there are viewing platforms at the 231' and 319' levels, which requires ascending a total of 510 steps. There is no elevator.
OK, first: it's a shitload of steps. It's a heeeeelllllll of a long way up a narrow, spiral stone staircase. By the end you're so dizzy from spinning and lack of oxygen that one fears rolling all the way back down like a gumball--an action for which I am fearfully well-configured. (I was encouraged, however, to see several lovely young women stopped along the way panting like dogs; it wasn't just me.)
But really, the main thing is this: the climb shows us that the totality of the cathedral isn't nearly grasped by any of us as we gawk from the ground. What we see from down below, and what we have a view of from the floor inside, is a small portion of the total, and much of the detail is lost to us from so far away. Only when we scale the structure a bit do we get a get a hint of what the design and construction of this building entailed.
At the highest level we could get to, one looked across to the adjacent tower, where workers' scaffolding poked out of the structure.
Looking down, we're waaaaaaay the bloody hell up off the ground, and workers up here are scampering around on the scaffolding removing and repairing bits of stone (they actually knocked off about the time I arrived, so no pictures of them). A couple of my shots show clearly replaced or cleaned pieces of stone and statuary (clicking on the photos will yield a larger version, which is worth the effort), as well as several spires and carvings which are missing, either deliberately for repair or existing now as dust 350 feet down. Just the THOUGHT of being up at this height 300 or 400 or 500 years ago on a wooden scaffolding practically makes my bowels let go. (Here's a shot of the inside of the stone-lattice spire, going up five or six stories and beyond, and then another of a metal ladder ascending the OUTSIDE of the same spire from our vantage point all the way to the top. It gives me the willies even to write about it.)
And it's not all just thrown together, but even hundreds of feet up the spaces are carefully planned and elaborately adorned and finished. Oh yeah, and EVERYTHING we see is carved from stone. Even 400 feet up. And not haphazardly, but with great precision so that it all locks almost seamlessly together. As pieces are stacked one on top of the other a sleek and elaborately-shaped column takes form, eventually splitting off into arches and vaults which must bear immense loads of weight, all of it supported by an elaborate series of external buttresses and columns and supports. All in carved stone. Everything is decorated with carvings and statuary and various other adornments; there's scarcely a simple stone block or unadorned surface in the whole structure. It's all as unnatural and improbable as the Space Shuttle. I'm reminded of my recent visit to St. John the Divine in NYC, where one sees a similar undertaking mid-project.
We made a stop on the way back down at the belfry, where several huge bells are hung (including the St. Petersglocke, which Wikipedia says, at 24 tons, is the largest free-swinging bell in the world). But for the iron frameworks holding them up and the electric motors to swing them, the setting is right out of Victor Hugo. Added to the improbability of the building is the question of how they got the bells 175 feet off the ground without their weight pulling the whole structure down. (I guess the big bell dates from 1922, which makes it seem less impossible, but still.)
The Dom took over 600 years to complete, beginning-to-end, and is now under a constant regimen of repair and rebuild. Interestingly, a Wikipedia article on the Cathedral's controlling agency, the ZDV, says that legally the cathedral belongs to itself, and not to the Catholic Church nor to the Archbishop. One wonders how the Catholic Church allowed such a property to slip from its grasp, though it seems all good that it has. Indeed, the article says it was essentially Protestant money that brought the Dom to completion in the late 1800s, and the ZDV remains a civic organization, not a religious (and certainly not a Catholic) one.
If it were MY Protestant money, I'd demand it be called a Lutheran church and Bach be played (and Mendelssohn and Reger). Better yet, call it a museum and throw in some Vierne and Duruflé.
(Support columns. Note the varying thicknesses of each course, which all had to be reconciled at the top, of course.)
(Blurry from the little dirty plexiglass window in the stairwell. But it's a view nobody ever sees otherwise.)
(And one last really, really cool shot from the web. This is from beneath the roof, but above the vaults, the view nobody gets to see. We look like we're about 25 feet up, but terra firma is really about 175 feet below! Fantastic.)