Culture in the Sticks

I was born in the hospital of a small Swiss village called Männedorf, a place on the northern shore of the Lake of Zurich. It was one of the coldest years of the century and I have been told that my father came to see me in the maternity hospital on skates from our home in Uerikon, a sleepy place which is known for its pretty wedding chapel and its two imposing knights’ dwellings.

During my childhood, my mother went weekly to take organ lessons in the protestant church of Männedorf. It was partly because of her teacher that I started the trumpet, as she knew an excentric trumpet player who came especially from Germany on a motorbike to teach me at home.

The old organ in the protestant church of Männedorf was known in musical circles, because it was constructed in situ by one Johann Nepomuk Kuhn, who at that time worked for a Swabian organ builder. After the job was finished in 1863, Johann Nepomuk, charmed by the beautiful lake, decided to stay in Männedorf, where he set himself up on his own. The factory boomed in the late 19th century, and was awarded the organ contract for St. Gallen cathedral and the Grossmünster in Zürich. The firm is still going strong, now mainly specializing in organ restoration.

In 1963 the chapel next to my childhood home in Uerikon was equipped with an organ and my mother became the chapel’s organist. Not surprisingly this instrument was manufactured by Kuhn of Männedorf. I have a vivid memory of my mother, who was a small lady, perched dangerously on the edge of the organ bench struggling to reach the pedals with her feet.

Kuhn organ in Uerikon

She played mainly for weddings, and I clearly remember her taking a trowel and a bucket into chapel, so she could scoot out after the ceremony to collect the horse dung left by the animals who were employed to pull the bridal carriage. Apart from music, she loved gardening, and in her opinion there was nothing better for roses than fresh horse manure.

Markus with his mother some years ago

Now this does not seem to have much to do with the Ardèche. But wait!

Kate and I are part of a cultural association, based in Désaignes, a pretty medieval village close to Lamastre. The ACD is an independent organisation which co ordinates diverse activities from chess and scrabble to hiking, circus arts, yoga and bee keeping. The logo on our membership cards is a stylized drawing of a church with three organ pipes.

A few weeks ago the Cultural Association of Désaignes celebrated its 50th birthday and marked the occasion with a  concert performed by the local choir, conducted by Laurent, choir master and director of the ACD, who had been rehearsing the choir for over a year in preparation for the event. The concert took place in the Temple, the protestant church, which was packed.

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Concert 2018 Ars Nova choir Desaignes

In the same venue 50 years earlier a memorable concert had attracted a television crew and hundreds of people to mark the launch of the Cultural Association, an idea which was considered rather unusual in the 60’s, when villages and small towns all over France were suffering from an inexorable drain of their population towards the cities and the traditional cultural events and meeting places were in decline. Désaignes could not reverse the trend, but could give the people the opportunity to meet, to improve their skills and to share their interests. So this concert would be the symbolic start of cultural events to come.

1968 outside the church

1968 filming the concert

The driving force behind this idea was the young vicar of the protestant parish. The church had been rebuilt after a recent fire and he expressed the wish to install an organ. Shortage of money meant that a new instrument was out of question, so the vicar, who originally came from Switzerland, looked for an alternative and found a bargain in Lausanne. But how to get it to Désaignes? The parishioners readily took up the challenge and despatched eight of their number in a blue lorry to Lausanne. There they stayed for a week, dismantling the organ, numbering the pipes, and packing everything into crates, after which they returned in triumph to Désaignes. They were later heard to observe that the Swiss eat too much cheese and that the wine glasses are too small, but the operation was an undoubted success. The organ was re-assembled, not without difficulty, as the ceiling of the church was too low for the big pipes, and had to be cut out – no problem for our eight heroes.

 

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But finally there it was, ready for the big concert. A recital performed by the organist of Lausanne cathedral in front of 1000 people.  A spectacular launch of an institution that is still going strong and includes the whole community.

And of course ……. the organ was manufactured by Kuhn of Männedorf, thus linking my childhood place, a tiny little dot on the map with my region of choice, another tiny dot on the map.

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Kuhn organ in Désaignes

Just before this year’s celebrations in Désaignes I wrote to the director of Kuhn and told him the story. I received a polite letter in reply, thanking me and telling me that Kuhn had been interested to update its archives, as they had no record of the removal of the organ from Lausanne. I haven’t yet told him that the organ is kaputt, and it would be very nice of him to restore it. But unless sacks of Swiss Francs are forthcoming, it is probably wiser to rely on eight guys with a blue lorry to sort things out!

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