It has been said that Montmartre and art are inseparable. Famous artists have lived and worked in this area of Paris, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, Degas, Matisse and Picasso. Its heart is the magnificent Romano- Byzantine architecture of the Sacre-Coeur basilica.
Through the Place des Abbesses, along Rue des Abbesses and on to Rue Joseph de Maistre, there is the music of the street performers, the music of the tourists and locals talking and laughing as they stroll idly or sit outside numerous restaurants, bars and cafes, the music of clattering bicycles and honking car horns.
I am staying in the Terrass Hotel, where my window overlooks the famous Montmartre cemetery, which, along with the more famous Pere Lachaise cemetery and others, sprang up in the early 19th century after the closure of the Cimetiere des Innocents in 1786 and the banning of cemeteries from inner Paris.
Nothing delights me more than wandering among the tombs of the departed, inspecting an inscription here, a sculpture there, or noting floral tributes in various degrees of putrefaction – so the Montmartre cemetery, which was built in a former quarry in 1825, and over part of which now runs Rue Caulaincourt, is irresistible.
The silence of composers, artists, authors, actors, dancers, architects, politicians, soldiers, scientists and hundreds of others now holds my attention to ransom.
Composers Jacques Offenbach, Hector Berlioz and Leo Delibes. Artists Edgar Degas, Gustave Moreau and Francis Picabia. Writers Stendhal, Heinrich Heine and Alexandre Dumas. Dalida, the Egyptian-born singer and actress, whose shrine attracts visitors from around the world. Louise Weber aka La Goulue, the famous can-can dancer, the “Queen of Montmartre”. Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. All gone. All here.
By late afternoon I feel quite lost in it all.
There is one who in his silence clamours most for my attention: the nineteenth century Spanish guitarist and composer Fernando Sor.
And, as I examine the 1930s statue depicting a semi-recumbent Sor cradling a guitar, I can almost imagine his eyes flicking open.
In a waking dream, it is as if I see the statue’s arms begin to move, the torso to twist. Then I imagine the deceased Sor opens his mouth.
“You know I shared rooms for a time with Dionisio Aguado in Paris,” I seem to hear Sor saying in a heavily accented English, referring to another great Spanish virtuoso of the classical guitar. “We used to play duets together. But I could never get past the fact that while I played with the flesh of the fingertips, he used nails. His sound was always more brilliant. But less subtle.”
Surprised at my own lack of surprise, I suggest the same could be said for the music. (Did I actually say it aloud?)
“If by brilliant you mean showy, then yes, I agree,” says Sor.
And so, as the day wanes and a light rain begins to fall, the living and the dead converse, in a fashion, in my head.
I hear the echo of Sor’s story – his birth in Barcelona in 1778, how he became not only a guitarist but a pianist and string player, a composer of symphonies, string quartets, ballets, operas and songs and a talented teacher.
He ended up in Paris after resisting Napoleon’s armies in 1808 but worked for the occupying forces after the French were victorious. When they left in 1813, he went with them.
He moved to London for a time but returned to Paris in 1826, where he remained until his death in 1839.
“Did you know Berlioz and Chopin both adored the guitar,” I seemed to hear him say as he began to fold back into his original, statuesque position, right at the moment when one of the cemetery’s many resident cats walked past.
“Don’t forget me,” he cried. “Keep playing my music and you will keep me alive.”
He, then Montmartre, again fell silent.
The entrance to the Cimetiere de Montmartre is at the end of Avenue Rachel, near the Boulevard de Clichy and Rue Caulaincourt. The nearest Metro is Place de Cichy. You can pick up a free map upon entering at the guard’s office. Opening hours are, from November 6-March 15: Mon-Fri 8am-5.30pm, Saturday 8.30am- 5.30pm, Sunday and holidays 9am- 5.30pm; from March 16-November 5: Mon-Fri 8am-6pm, Saturday 8.30am- 6pm, Sunday and holidays 9am-6pm.