Tuesday, January 26, 2016

La Maison des Musiciens in Reims...

The mysterious gap in Rue Tambour - Reims
When I lived in the old part of the city - around Place du Forum - I used to look up at the amazing buildings that had somehow managed to survive to the present day - unlike the majority of the architecture of Reims which had been flattened and/or burnt to the ground during the First World War.

Façade Hôtel des Comtes de Champagne
The few that had indeed made it through the centuries are now either surrounded by the odd mix of architectural styles that were part of the ambitious project for "une réconstruction aux multiples visages" from the end of the war years in the early 20s, or are cornered in or crowed out by far more recent 'compositions' that seem to have little to offer, except generate a sizeable revenue for those concerned, I presume. Better that than demolition, however.

Hôtel des Comtes de Champagne
One of the curious, cobbled streets that branch out from Place du Forum has one such site of destruction, where some old building has been ripped out, like an old tooth from a jaw. All that remains now is a jagged line of stone stubs in the previously-adjoined edifice next to the void, that itself is concealed behind a non-descript concrete wall.

Hôtel des Comtes de Champagne
I always wondered what building had stood there prior to this clumsy excision, and why the site had not yet been reclaimed by the city council or some construction firm.

Void on left-hand side, direction Place du Forum
When I visited the Musée Historique Saint-Remi during the Journée du Patrimoine back in September, I finally found about that mysterious gap in Rue Tambour.

Detail of Hôtel des Comtes de Champagne 
What I had taken for the work of some recent demolition job, was in fact the result of the destruction of the Great War, and therefore dates back some hundred years. Until then, the street had borne some of the most beautiful Gothic buildings of the town, and housed some of the more illustrious individuals.

Maison des Musiciens - Reims 
Rue Tambour is fairly narrow, and therefore it is hard to believe that it was once the main Roman road (cardo), leading towards the Forum. Indeed, we are more accustomed to seeing the wide axis of the city that was part of the post-war Reconstruction years, based on the plans of the American urban architect John B. Ford.

Print of Maison des Musiciens - Musée Saint-Remi
It is said that when the royal procession headed towards the cathedral for the coronation of Charles X in 1825, via Rue Tambour, any façade statue that risked catching the royal standards and banners was amputated of its offending appendages. The evidence of significant damage is visible today...

The Four Musicians and the Bourgeois - Musée Saint-Remi - Reims
From the Middle Ages, this street indeed played an important role in the city and is said to have offered money-changing services; essential for travelling salesmen who would move from the various commercial fairs of the region (les foires de Champagne) or would visit the city during the Coronation of the successive kings of France. In the 16th century, an apothecary plied its trade in the street,  public sales took place there towards the end of the 17th century and at the advent of the 20th century, a hardware store proposed its goods to the rémois. 

Base of Statue
When I arrived here twenty-odd years ago, Rue Tambour was known for its Asian restaurants, but that has gradually changed and the street seems to be embracing its ancestral roots à la française. The use of its last remaining Gothic building for private receptions and cultural functions seems to highlight this. Indeed, the Hôtel des Comtes de Champagne, is the illustrious survivor of the same war years to which the missing building fell victim.

The Rebec Player
Built in the 13th century, this hôtel is said to have been the periodic residence of Thibaud 1V (1201-1253), one of the Counts of Champagne, based in Troyes. It now belongs to Champagne Taittinger and so continues to retain a certain note of elitism and ever possesses its marked element of beauty. Similar high-ceiled ceremonial reception rooms, ornate pointed-arch windows (en ogive), sculpted fireplaces and doorways graced the interiors of the building next to the hôtel. No trace of these exist today, of course, but the key features of this missing edifice have survived.

The Harp Player
The vast Gothic statues for which this building was renowned - the Four Musicians - were removed in 1917, in order to preserve them from the destruction that duly visited Rue Tambour shortly after that date. These figures can be seen today in the Musée Saint-Remi, having spent years in the Musée des Monuents Français in Paris between the two world wars, and having almost been purchased by the USA at the beginning of the 20th century. This Maison des Musiciens would certainly have been the oldest private edifice in Reims, had it not been destroyed. What is less certain was its actual function and whether its distinctive ornamentation served to highlight a concrete musical status. Was this a site for a corporation of  musicians (ménestrels/ménétriers), similar to those later known as La Ménestrandise in Paris? Its name is often linked to the Eglise Saint-Julien des Ménétriers, itself destroyed during the French Revolution... Or was this a lavish reception hall for musical events or finally was it merely the expression of the particular aesthetic taste of a rich bourgeois who aspired to be part of the social elite?

The Bourgeois Owner
Whatever its purpose, the Maison des Musiciens combines traits of a wealthy bourgeois dwelling and an urban palace, through structure and features. According to prints and photographs, the house had a façade composed of two distinct styles. The bottom was used for commercial ends; small shops were set between the relatively narrow windows that bore rounded, Roman arches, alongside a large rounded porch. On the first floor, the imposing musicians occupy the tri-lobed arched niches, which in turn are set beside vast rectangular stained-glass windows. The roof slopes down at an impressive angle, with mansard windows piercing the surface, giving a typical 'Medieval' air. The vivid expressions of the musicians add to the overall impression, although we have to rely on the setting at the museum to sense the atmosphere they originally created, of course.

The Chevrette (bagpipe) Player
The four statues make up an orchestra - with players of a rebec (a Medievel stringed instrument, played below the arm), harp, chevrette (similar to a bagpipe) and a tambourine/flute -  and a fifth (central) figure, said to represent the bourgeois owner himself, bearing a falcon on his leather-clad arm. Each character has his own traits yet together they form a harmonious group. It is said that the Maison des Musiciens has links with Reims cathedral, whose imposing northern flank you encounter by simply following the Rue Tambour, crossing Place du Forum and Place Royale. The similarity of the stone used, and the quality and character of the statues might suggest that the same sculptor carried out work on both façades, but as you often have a certain feeling of déjà vu around these incredible works of art, it is difficult to know...

The Tambourine/Flute Player
So I finally discovered what lies behind the void in Rue Tambour and yet again, I wished I could travel back in time to visit the pre-1914 Reims.

Detail - Façade Hôtel des Comtes de Champagne

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