Every Parisian knows that the city empties in August. The phrase “Paris au mois d’Août” is proverbial as denoting a place of desolation – it’s even the title of a classic 1960s romantic movie (and song) in which Charles Aznavour has been left behind as his family flees to the provinces. Paris may be one of the world’s great cultural cities, but not in August, when classical music is pretty much limited to the odd organ concert in Notre-Dame or a trip to Versailles to see music in the gardens. Your last major festival before everyone leaves the capital is the wonderful Festival Chopin à Paris, which runs until mid July at the Parc de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne.
But here’s the point: while the capital is deserted, the rest of the country is brimming over with music festivals, all vying for the attention of a population which suddenly, for a brief few weeks, has plenty of leisure time. Almost any community of any reasonable size, it seems, joins in the enterprise, and some of the offerings are of top international quality. If you want to enjoy the delights of the French countryside and provincial towns and take in some music along the way, late July/August is the time to do it – whether you’re planning a trip dedicated to music or just hoping take in some music as part of a holiday focused on other things.
The festivals come in every shape, size and style of music. There are festivals in wineries, in abbeys, on islands, in castles, in cities. Some describe themselves as “itinerant”, such as the Festival 1001 Notes, in Limoges and a selection of the surrounding towns and villages. There are opera festivals, orchestral festivals, piano festivals, string quartet festivals, contemporary music festivals. If you include non-classical, the numbers get staggering: in 2016, the Provence region alone (admittedly, one of the top holiday destinations) claimed 245 festivals in 267 cities; we reckoned that there were at least 800 classical music events amongst those festivals.
There are plenty of French festival-goers to occupy the attention of most of the promoters. But a select number are substantial enterprises with a considerable international presence. Top of the list of these, as well as being the earliest, is the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, whose 2017 edition runs from 3rd to 22nd July. Under the leadership of Bernard Foccroulle, Aix has commissioned important new operas such as George Benjamin’s Written on Skin: this year’s world première will be Philippe Boesmans’ Pinocchio (to learn more, check out our interview with baritone Stéphane Degout). This year’s Aix also rare early opera in the shape of Cavalli’s Erismena, as well as more standard fare. There’s also a substantial concert programme – you can read more in our preview.
France’s premier piano festival is the Festival International de Piano, based at La Roque-d’Anthéron (also in Provence, a stone’s throw north of Aix) and using a dozen or so venues in the region. The 2017 programme hasn’t been published at time of writing, but to give you a flavour of the quality: the 2016 edition included such names as Grigory Sokolov, Boris Berezovsky, Benjamin Grosvenor, Lukas Geniusas, Nikolai Lugansky, François-Frédéric Guy – each of them worth the trip on their own. Also in the area, in late August and early September, is a festival entirely dedicated to the string quartet: the Festival International de Quatuors à Cordes du Luberon.
Improbably, in view of recent politics, another of the big festivals, the Festival Berlioz, has chosen a British theme of London in the era of the Great Exhibitions – a notable British guest will be Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conducting La damnation de Faust. It’s another festival set in several venues in a spectacular region, in this case the foothills of the Alps around Grenoble: Gardiner will be performing at the Château Louis XI, whose original structure dates from the 13th century.
With many dozens of festivals to choose from, I can’t possibly print an exhaustive list. But here’s the key thing to take from this article: in July and August, France offers an exceptional list of opportunities to hear great music in spectacular settings. We’ll be keeping you posted.