Classical Paris: a musical expedition around 10 iconic spots

From Montparnasse to the Eiffel Tower and from the Tuileries to the Luxembourg Gardens, here's a new way to explore the City of Light - in music.

France has always been a very centralised system, so it is hardly surprising that many of the great names in the music world were born in Paris, studied in Paris and/or pursued their career in Paris. Have composers, in turn, honoured the City of Light as it deserves? Mention classical music and Paris, and Offenbach immediately springs to mind as the mirror of nineteenth-century Parisian society. Or, in a much earlier period, Clément Janequin and his Cries of Paris. There is no escaping the fact that, quite apart from the many songs about the city, Paris has inspired a vast body of compositions.

So let's set off on a musical expedition across the Seine, parks, covered passageways and boulevards to Hear the cries of Paris.

*Follow the expedition on an interactive map at the bottom of the page, or on a large-format map on this page.

1st spot: the Montparnasse train station with Offenbach

First spot: Montparnasse! In 1866, Jacques Offenbach composed La Vie Parisienne, an operetta set to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy relating the adventures of a couple of tourists in Paris.

How more modern could you get than by opening the opera with a chorus of western-line employees? The Brest train station was inaugurated in 1865, just as the Montparnasse station was undergoing major changes. A new building was under construction to replace the original one, which had become too small. The "western-line employees" used to accompany passengers all along the 16-hour journey. 

Note that when Offenbach revised La Vie Parisienne in 1873, he shifted the action to the Saint-Lazare station, which had, in the meantime, become the largest station in Paris.

2nd spot: Montparnasse with Poulenc

In February 1945, Francis Poulenc put the finishing touches to the score of Montparnasse, a song set to a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire written in 1913. It was, precisely, at Montparnasse that Poulenc met Apollinaire, surreptitiously, in 1917. It was already some years since Montparnasse had replaced Montmartre as the artists' quarter. The common ground between Poulenc and Apollinaire was Paris: Montparnasse, La Grenouillère, Voyage à Paris, and Les Mamelles de Tirésias.

"The truth is that Montparnasse is replacing Montmartre, the Montmartre of yesteryear, the Montmartre of artists, songwriters, windmills, cabarets, even harschischopages, the first opinionomanes and the sempiternal etheromanes: all those (among the great Montmartre artists) who still lived there and who the noisy bars had pushed out of the old Montmartre, destroyed by property owners and architects, booed by the futuristic Parisians, where, for that matter, all those people have emigrated in the form of Cubists, Red-Skins, or orphic poets."

(Guillaume Apollinaire, La Vie anecdotique*, * Le Mercure de France, 16 March 1914)

3rd spot: Sainte-Geneviève with Marin Marais

Marin Marais was still a pupil of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe when he wrote his Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris in 1723. The piece is not only a reproduction of the carillon at the Abbaye Sainte-Geneviève in Paris (partially destroyed to make room for the Sainte-Geneviève church, which has since become the Panthéon, but of which a few buildings remain in the present-day Lycée Henri IV, and in particular the Sainte-Geneviève library), it is also, and most importantly, a musical echo of everyday life in the abbey: walks, work, prayers, etc.

4th spot: the Luxembourg Gardens, with Jean Françaix

In 1971, the composer Jean Françaix composed a series of 15 portraits inspired by paintings by Auguste Renoir. One of these pieces, Au jardin du Luxembourg, is a miniature form of the eponymous painting by the famous Impressionist. Jean Françaix transcribed these portraits for piano duet and dedicated them to his two daughters as a bit of musical fun, perfectly in keeping with Renoir’s painting: somewhere between childish impishness (hoop and sandpit) and elegant ladies wearing hats.

5th spot: Les Halles with Reynaldo Hahn

Reynaldo Hahn's eminently Parisian operatta Ciboulette opens at the centre of the "belly of Paris", Les Halles, in the time of the Pavillons Baltard covered markets. The action takes place in 1867 and depicts the misfortunes that befall Ciboulette, who has a vegetable stall at the markets. Ciboulette ("chives" in English) is a pretty name for someone who sells vegetables. Reynaldo Hahn took the name from an operetta by Offenbach, Mesdames de la Halle, the composer's first work to be performed for a large audience at the Bouffes-Parisiens theatre. Ciboulette premiered at the Théâtre des Variétés on 7 April 1923 and had to compete with American musicals, which were then all the rage.

6th spot: Café Momus with Puccini

Welcome to the café Momus at 9 rue des Prêtres-Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, the haunt of young, penniless artists in the 1830s and '40s, following in the footsteps of Nadar, Courbet, Baudelaire and Ernest Renan. It was the perfect setting for Puccini, who had the protagonists of La bohême gather there in the second tableau. To make Marcello jealous, Musetta sings her aria Quando men' vo soletta in the Momus café. Of course, the group of friends can't pay the bill, so Musetta arranges for the rich state councillor Alcindoro, who accompanies her, to pay the bill, before leaving him to join Marcello. La bohème, in short.

7th spot: the Louvre with Debussy

Souvenir du Louvre, which is the second of the three pieces forming the collection Images oubliées by Claude Debussy, was composed in 1894. The piece is dedicated to Yvonne Lerolle, the daughter of the painter and friend of Debussy, Henry Lerolle. Yvonne sat as a model, at the piano, for Renoir and Degas. 

8th spot: the Tuileries with Mussorgsky

The sixth painting from the famous Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky is "Tuileries. Children's Quarrel after Games" (1874). It was inspired by a painting representing "An avenue in the garden of the Tuileries, with a swarm of children and nurses", according to the work's dedicatee, Stassov. Unlike other composers who based their works on a particular aspect of Parisian life drawn from their own experience of Paris, it should be noted that Modest Mussorgsky never set foot in Paris and almost never left Saint Petersburg.

9th spot: the Eiffel Tower with The Six

Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel (The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower) is a collective ballet written by Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre, based on a libretto by Jean Cocteau. It was performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1921. And what better way to conclude this musical expedition than to have breakfast on an upper level of the Eiffel Tower? It is the only more or less pleasant moment in this ballet, which is punctuated by the arrival of a lion that devours the guests, a massacre fugue (Darius Milhaud) and a Funeral March (Arthur Honneger), for what Cocteau described as the "miraculous poetry of everyday life".

10th spot: Paris, with Villa-Lobos

The Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos was already over 35 when he obtained a grant to study in Paris. For this first stay, he lived at 13 de la Place Saint-Michel: it was the beginning of a very special relationship between the city and the composer. After his return to Brazil in 1930, he regularly came back to Paris. On one of these stays, in 1948, he composed this little piece, Bonsoir Paris, from the musical Magdalena, which was performed that same year at the Ziegfeld Theater on Broadway.

Incidentally, during another stay in Paris between 1952 and 1959, Heitor Villa-Lobos lived at the Bedford Hotel in the 8th arrondissement... which is also the venue for Lionel Esparza's Classic Club programme on France Musique!