Classical 99.5 | Classical Radio Boston
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

All Eyes on Paris... in Classical Music!

Eiffel Tower at sunset
Chris Karidis
Eiffel Tower at sunset

Paris, city of lights, city of romance, is a bucket-list kind of city. It was for me, when I was newly married and my husband surprised me — already four days into our European honeymoon — with four days in Paris as a wedding gift.  

We loved-loved Paris. He called it magical. I called it fairy tale. Both of us thought it was the most romantic place to which we had ever been, and mind you, both of us had traveled extensively by that point. I’m sure the taxi driver bringing us to the airport that last day there thought we were two nuts, because both of us were tearing up and waving to the buildings as we passed, so sad leaving that beautiful city.

The thing is, Paris is magical, is fairy tale, is romantic. And those adjectives were felt by some great composers, too.

Telemann: Paris Quartets

Georg Philipp Telemann was a much-respected composer in Germany when, in 1730, he was invited to come to Paris by a set of four top French musicians. In anticipation of the meeting with his French musical hosts, Telemann wrote for them a set of 6 quartets, which he had published in Hamburg before he left. French audiences loved them so much, that the king gave permission for these pieces to be republished in Paris, a rare honor.

Seven years later Telemann was invited to Paris again, an occasion for which he wrote another half dozen quartets for the original musicians. All twelve were played to much acclaim during his 1737 visit, and it is believed Telemann himself joined them in the performances as the harpsichordist.

The nickname, “Paris Quartets,” was not Telemann’s title, but instead came from the 20th Century editors of Telemann’s whole catalog. That they were pieces written for French musicians, delighting Parisian audiences, including the king, and were honored by being published there, makes them more than eligible to be included in this list. Here is a 1964 recording of the Amsterdam Quartet playing the Paris Quartet No. 1:

If you’re looking up the music, the original set are listed under the Italian name, Quadri, while the second set are called Nouveaus quatuors en six suites, in French.

Mozart: "Paris" Symphony

Mozart was just 22 in March 1778 when he traveled to Paris with his mother, hoping to secure a better position than the one he had in Salzburg. He worked his way through Parisian society and eventually received a commission for a symphony. In a letter home to his father, Mozart wrote about the opening of the Concert Spirituel and a symphony he wrote for that music festival. His Symphony in D Major, K.297 (now known as the "Paris"), did not have enough rehearsal time before opening night. Mozart claimed he didn’t even want to attend the concert because he was so afraid of what his music would sound like. He did go at the last minute, and it was a glorious performance after all. He told his father, “...the audience were quite carried away, and there was a tremendous burst of applause.” Here’s Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic:

Mozart’s letter to his father ended with a comment of pure happiness: “I was so happy that as soon as the symphony was over, I went off to the Palais Royal, where I had a large ice, said the rosary as I had vowed to do, and went home.”

Haydn: Paris Symphonies (No. 85, “The Queen”)

Eight years later, Mozart’s friend and mentor, Joseph Haydn, was also commissioned for works to be premiered in Paris. In 1786 the Count of Ogny, who played cello in an orchestra called Le Concert de la loge Olympique ("Orchestra of the Olympic Masonic Lodge"), offered to pay Haydn 25 louis d’or for each symphony. It must have been a satisfactory amount because Haydn ended up writing six symphonies, Nos. 82, 83, 84, 85, 86 and 87, which are grouped together as his “Paris Symphonies.”

One of the six, No. 85, quickly earned a nickname, La Reine, ("The Queen"), because Queen Marie Antoinette made it be known that it was her favorite. Here is Frans Bruggen conducting the Orchestra of the 18th Century:

Each one of the symphonies was well received by royalty and other concertgoers, which in turn, caused numerous Parisian publishing houses to race to print copies of each of Haydn's works as soon as they could.

Delius: Paris: The Song of a Great City

In 1899-1900, English composer Frederick Delius wrote a piece with fond remembrances of the more than a decade that he had lived in Paris. Paris, The Song of a Great City is a nocturne for orchestra, leaving the listener with his impressions of his time there rather than describing the city in any recognizable way.

His hand-written notes included phrases such as “mysterious city” (describing the slow opening), “city of gay music and dancing” (referencing Paris’ numerous night clubs), and even includes the start of the next day as the city awakens. This version is played by The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Myer Fredman:

While some criticized Delius for writing such a moody and impressionistic piece, others understood that he loved the city that inspired him to write several other pieces and where he met his future wife.

Gershwin: An American in Paris

Audiences attending the 1928 New York premiere of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris had no idea that in addition to the instruments they were used to hearing in an orchestra, they would also be hearing Parisian taxi horns! Gershwin brought back four horns from his extended trip to Paris, intent on including them in a piece he had planned to celebrate that wonderful city.

While America in the 1920s was experiencing the “Roaring Twenties” and “The Jazz Age,” Paris was undergoing similar artistic explorations in what they called the Annees folles ("crazy years"). The glories and excitement of the city won Gershwin's heart and it didn't take long for him to flesh out his sketches for An American in Paris. He described the piece this way in an interview with the magazine, Musical America: “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.” Here’s the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein conducting:

Gershwin initially travelled to Paris in 1926, hoping to study with Maurice Ravel, a composer he admired. There is a famous story of Gershwin's audition, to which Ravel stated why he couldn't teach him: "Why be a second-rate Ravel when you could be a first-rate Gershwin?" Two years later, the great French music teacher Nadia Boulanger also turned him down, saying something similar!

Ibert: Suite Symphonique

Although the title Suite Symphonique does not include the word Paris, the piece was Jacques Ibert’s respectful love letter to his native city. He composed this in 1930, as an attempt to describe a full day in the city. It begins with the morning rush of commuters taking the trains to work, and ends with a parade at a local fair, a nod to American music and influence that he was hearing in Parisian dance halls. In fact, Ibert actually quotes from Gershwin’s An American in Paris a couple of times in this piece, although he puts the quote in a minor key. Neeme Jarvi conducts the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande:

CODA: I was very young, juste une petite fille, when I heard my first song about Paris. It was this album, included in my parents’ extensive collection of beautiful songs sung by the greatest singers, that I heard them play time and again on our stereo. I remember them actually getting up and dancing to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, cheek to cheek.

Sigh. Is it too late to book a flight in time for the Olympics?

Hear the playlist:

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.