Chasing classical music history in Paris

In Paris, art is everywhere. It’s not an exaggeration to say every block inside the city limits boasts a little bit of eye candy — whether it’s a world-class museum, a row of elegant Haussmann-designed apartments, a sweet arbor covered in pink roses or just an attractive café.

With all this visual stimulation, visitors to the City of Light may momentarily forget the other four senses. (Okay, the other three: In this town, you won’t soon forget taste!) But doing so altogether would be a mistake, because this magical place is as sonically pleasing as it is aesthetically pleasing. After all, it’s been home to some of the greatest composers who ever lived.

Though Paris’ reputation for world-class art is due in large part to Debussy, Rossini and other famous music masters who resided there, few tourists will learn much about their legacy. That’s because sites dedicated to the city’s musical history have to compete with world-class art museums, shopping and restaurants. And not even the biggest classical fan wants to spend a day stalking Satie if it means missing the Mona Lisa or Moulin Rouge.

Luckily, as my most recent trip to Paris proves, it’s easy to make time for the classical alongside the classics. If you’re a music lover, you can have your macaron and eat it too. Here’s how to walk in the footsteps of Debussy, Chopin and other classical greats while still staying on the tourist trail.

Artwork at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

MUSÉE D’ORSAY

A trip to the Musee D’Orsay, where some of the world’s most famous Impressionist paintings are housed, is a must on any trip to Paris. Luckily, the museum houses a few delightful classical-themed gems for those who are as excited about Liszt as they are about water lilies. Here you’ll find portraits of Erik Satie and Hector Berlioz, Degas’ rendering of a night at the Paris Opera, and Franz von Stück’s arresting Beethoven mask, which I’ve hoped to see in person since childhood. Even when the D’Orsay isn’t paying outright tribute to the most famous Parisian composers, it still feels as if you’re floating through the visual equivalent of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” — especially on the museum’s famous fifth floor, which is all dreamy water lilies, soft lines and pastel landscapes.

Outside the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

MONTMARTRE

If you’re a first-time visitor to Paris, you’ll probably end up in Montmartre at some point during your trip. Home to heavyweights such as the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur and the Moulin Rouge, this hilly neighborhood was once the international capital of bohemianism and creativity. Among its famous residents were the painters Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse. Naturally, writers and musicians flocked here, too, holing up in cabarets by night and philosophizing over coffee and cigarettes by day. More than a century later, it’s still easy to see why Montmartre’s romantic, winding lanes and colorful storefronts attracted artists of all kinds.

Here in the 18th arrondissement, fitting in a taste of the belle époque musician’s life between visits to major tourist sights is easy. Just blocks away from Sacre-Coeur is Rue Cortot, where Erik Satie — he of the dreamy “Gymnopédie” piano pieces — once lived. And right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge sits Le Carmen, an elegant nightclub that was once the home of Georges Bizet. The grand foyer opens up to a massive bar area, which offers opera-themed cocktails (spicy “Habanera,” anyone?) and countless flavors of infused gin.

Chandeliers at the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

VERSAILLES

A day trip to this over-the-top palace, built just outside Paris by King Louis XIV in the late 17th century, is popular for a reason: Its interiors are jaw-droppingly opulent, and its acres of manicured grounds provide hours of free entertainment. For more than a century, Versailles residents’ fashion sense and food tastes set international trends, some of which persist to this day (macarons, anyone?).

So, too, did Louis XIV’s tastes in music. Jean-Baptiste Lully, the composer of the lively, balletic operas “Armide” and “Phaeton,”  was the Sun King’s composer-in-residence for decades, filling the palace with incomparable music on a regular basis. Versailles quickly became a must-visit destination for the biggest names in the biz, including Mozart and Charpentier.

Today, there are several ways to soak up Versailles’ classical history. If you’re already planning to tour the palace, simply grab a free audio guide on your way in and you’ll be treated to clips of the same music Marie Antoinette once heard, along with a few facts about the concerts that took place in the palace’s heyday, from sacred music in private chapel ceremonies to big parlor concerts. But the best way to connect with this estate’s classical history by far is to attend a live concert on the grounds. Held in the evenings after the crowds are gone, these concerts include music from the 17th century and today and often feature big-name soloists. In the warmer months, the palace sometimes moves the festivities outside, pairing the sweet sounds with a lighted fountain show.

Rossini's grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

PÈRE LACHAISE CEMETERY

Most tourists visit this beautiful park to pay their respects to rock star Jim Morrison, probably the most famous figure buried here. That’s good news for classical fans, who might be more interested in the cemetery’s other rock stars. Chopin, Rossini, Cherubini and Poulenc are among the composers who rest here — and their intricate, hand-carved mausoleums don’t disappoint. Once you’ve gawked to your heart’s content, walk to Belleville or Le Banane for a bite — these neighborhoods are home to some of the city’s hippest bars, restaurants and coffee shops.

Arc de Triomphe in the evening, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

EVERYWHERE ELSE

While you’re touring around Paris, keep an eye out for other tiny hints of the city’s rich classical history. While walking between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, I spotted a street sign dedicated to Léo Delibes, whose lush Flower Duet has found its way into countless commercials and films. And as we strolled near the Moulin Rouge, we turned a corner and came eye to eye with a large sculpture of Hector Berlioz. And Chopin is everywhere in this city, from monuments in the Luxembourg Gardens and Parc Monceau to an entire small museum within the Polish Library.

Of course, the best place to see classical history come alive in Paris is at the Opéra National. I wasn’t lucky enough to attend myself…but it’s at the top of my list for next time!

Have you been to Paris? What was your favorite experience? Sound off in the comments!

Read next: Five cities that surprised me

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Mariners ArtsNight - by Jill Kimball for Classical KING FM

Recent work

After a few years working in the arts, I’ve stopped thinking in terms of the calendar year. To me, the year begins in September and ends in May, rising and falling in tandem with the concert seasons I follow closely. The months in between are for projects, parties, and pontificating. Even though my life is about to change big time, I think September will always feel like a new beginning to me.

While the holidays (aka the summer months) are in full swing and we edge ever closer to New Year’s Eve (Labor Day weekend), I thought I’d do a year in review of sorts.

If there’s one word I can apply to the last year of my life, it’s “busy.” In the 2014-15 concert season, I juggled one and a half jobs, three ensembles within Seattle Pro Musica, service on a board, and lots of time with friends. I have a lot to show for my hard work, including a wide variety of writing, graphics, and fully realized ideas.

 

A THINK PIECE

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MULTIMEDIA PREVIEWS

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At SIFF 2015, follow the music
Each spring, the Seattle International Film Festival sorts its films by genre. Quite a few delve into the topic of classical music. I did a roundup of movies about, or featuring, classical music for KING FM.

 

LISTICLES

13 Seattle concerts you should attend at least once
For about a year now, I’ve been attending monthly NPR Analytics meetings. I’ve used these to check in on the digital state of NPR affiliate stations, but I also use them for creative inspiration. In a round-up of some of June’s most popular NPR stories, the meeting panelists mentioned the popularity of the classic “bucket list” article. I thought, hey, I can do that for KING FM! And so I did.

5 Facts about Jean Sibelius
The Seattle Symphony celebrated Sibelius’ 150th anniversary with a month of his music, then we did a marathon broadcast of all those concerts. I thought I’d get to know the composer a little better.

31 Facts about Mozart
Every January, KING FM creates a 31 Days of Mozart Channel, where we play nonstop Mozart for an entire month. I wrote this listicle to promote the channel.

 

SOME ALBUM REVIEWS

Nordic Affect: Clockworking
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Gabriel Kahane: The Ambassador
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Maya Beiser: Uncovered
An edgy cellist with East-meets-West roots deconstructed her favorite classic rock songs on this album. In researching and reading the liner notes, I think I learned more about classic rock than I did about the cello.

Julia Wolfe: Steel Hammer
One of New York City’s top composers generated a lot of buzz with a modern requiem for John Henry, the fictional steel driver who became an American folk hero. I loved the beautiful vocals by Trio Mediæval.

A Far Cry: Dreams & Prayers
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The Knights: the ground beneath our feet
This Brooklyn-based chamber ensemble’s lighter-than-air exploration of the concerto grosso form spanned centuries of music, from Bach to the present day.

Missy Mazzoli: Vespers for a New Dark Age
My favorite feminist composer turned a religious rite, the vesper service, into a secular art form more fitting for the 21st century.

 

INTERVIEWS

A Talk with Anonymous 4
My 13-year-old self, newly obsessed with choral music, squealed the whole time.

Eight questions for the King’s Singers
Um…ditto.

Derek Bermel’s Death with Interruptions
I previewed a world premiere set to kick off the Seattle Chamber Music Festival.