Strike up a note-perfect, melodious tour de France

Discovering new areas of France is always a joy, and following a theme can open doors to unexplored places and people you might not otherwise discover

25 December 2019
The Isère home of Hector Berlioz seems far too staid for such a controversial life
By Samantha David

Music is central to French traditions and cultures, and a great way to enjoy it is by visiting the houses of great composers and musicians. You get a feel for their personalities and their work.

The house where Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was born and grew up, in La Côte Saint-André (Isère), is open to the public all year round, and – as an added bonus – entrance is free.

Berlioz (by Kriehuber)

Berlioz was a romantic composer, meaning his music is emotional, dramatic, and is often connected to or expresses a non-musical idea; a story, a famous painting, a season in nature, for example.

Berlioz was controversial in his lifetime, and his music remains unconventional, full of time signature and key changes.

Listening to it, particularly for the first time, can be overwhelming. His most famous work Symphonie Fantastique was written in a fevered passion for the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he later married.

Wandering round the house gives a clear idea of his strong and passionate character.

He wrote immense scores to be played by up to 1,200 musicians at a time, and never once wrote a piece for a solo instrument.

His personal life was equally flamboyant, although towards the end of his life he became embittered by his lack of commercial success.

All of this is explained during the visit, and do not miss the garden, which is full of roses in summer.

There are concerts in the auditorium.

Do not miss the nearby Maison Jouvenal chocolaterie – they do demonstrations and tastings as well as selling the most divine pâtisserie.

“We’ve been here 107 years,” said owner Anne-Laure, “and many of our chocolates are Berlioz themed.”

Their private chocolate museum is undergoing major works and will not reopen until the end of 2020, but they are still offering all their services including chocolate-making courses for adults as well as children (if you ring ahead, they can even make personalised cakes.)

While you are in the mood for delicious indulgences, check out the attractive Cherry Rocher Liqueur museum, where generations of the same family have been distilling liqueurs since the 15th century.

The tour takes in distilling methods, a little local history and a nice display of posters and labels, before finishing with a tasting (liqueurs for adults, and syrups for children).

You can get to La Côte Saint-André by bus or train from Grenoble, and various other surrounding towns.

If you are taking the car, however, do not forget that the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval is not far away and if you have not already been, a visit there would complete a fantastic day out.

The small house, Le Belvédère, which Maurice Ravel bought in 1921 and lived in until his death in 1937, is in Montfort-l’Amaury (Yvelines) – which is just southwest of Paris.

: Some pianists have been lucky enough to play the piano used by Maurice Ravel, who famously composed Boléro

It is open to the public but visits have to be booked ahead and only small groups can be accommodated as the spaces are small. All the tours are accompanied.

Maurice Ravel (circa 1925)

The rooms have the atmosphere of a ship’s cabin or a doll’s house, full of mechanical toys, and other collections.

The house has been kept exactly as it was when the composer died. You have the impression that he might walk into the room at any minute.

Visiting pianists have been accorded the pleasure of playing Ravel’s piano, at which he composed many of his famous works.

His best-known composition is Boléro, the music used by ice skating legends Torvill and Dean when they won gold at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics in 1984.

Repetition was one of his favoured techniques and in contrast to Berlioz, he composed no symphonies or religious music, producing instead a series of pieces for piano, chamber music, two piano concertos, ballet music, operas and song cycles.

Realising the importance of the newest technology available, from the 1920s onward he made several recordings of his works.

Not much is known about Ravel’s private life. His house does, however, shed light on a well-organised, logical mind – a collector, a lover of aesthetic beauty, a quiet man.

While you’re in Montfort-l’Amaury, why not visit the house of Jean Monnet?

One of the founding fathers of the European project, he was also a political economist, banker, and diplomat.

In the 1950s he was at the heart of establishing the European Coal and Steel Community, the predecessor to the EU.

Born in 1888, he lived through both world wars, and saw the establishment of modern Europe, and died in 1979.

His marriage to the Italian painter Silvia Giannini was not recognised in all countries because she was divorced, and gave birth to the politician’s daughter before her divorce from her first husband had been finalised.

Monnet welcomed many high-profile visitors to the long, low thatched farmhouse, including Edward Heath, Robert Schuman, Helmut Schmidt and Dwight Eisenhower.

Today the house belongs to the European Parliament and is run by the Jean Monnet Association, which has restored it as it was during Monnet’s lifetime.

There are frequent lectures, around 250 per year, on European history and current events, making it a great place to understand how the EU is constructed. 

The house of another hugely creative French musician, Erik Satie, can be visited in Honfleur, Calvados (Normandy).

His white grand piano can be seen, in dramatic glory, on white painted floorboards in a white room.

In another completely white room, wooden chairs are scattered around with their legs sawn off at strange angles, so they look at if they have sunk into the floor.

The strange, quirky, playful house perfectly reflects the composer’s personality. “The piano, like money, is only nice when you touch it,” he famously declared.

As you walk around the house, you can hear details of Satie’s life through a headset, and hear some of his most famous compositions.

Very accessible and fun, his best-loved pieces are the three Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes; very strong on atmosphere and melody but hardly containing any notes, they are deceptively simple to play.

Satie was eccentric in every way.

In his tiny, cheap rooms in Paris he kept two grand pianos, one on top of the other. He had a collection of more than 100 umbrellas.

The all-white room of eccentric composer Erik Satie in Honfleur, Normandy

His music scores were in total disarray.

He only ever had one, very short-lived romantic affair; founded his own religion; and carried a hammer with him at all times for self-defence. He only ever ate white food.

“My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, mouldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin).

“I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself,” he wrote in 1912.

His musical scores are well-known for containing multiple written comments and instructions to musicians, such as ‘light as an egg’, ‘here comes the lantern’, open your head’, ‘muffle the sound’, ‘with astonishment’, and a personal favourite, ‘work it out yourself’!

His influence is vast; he was a friend of Claude Debussy, of Cocteau, Diaghilev, Picasso and Ravel. Cubism, Dadaism, contemporary art, and interior decorating all owe him massive debts. Once you have met Satie, you will never forget him.

Claude Debussy (1962-1918) was born in a house in the middle of St-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, where his father ran a china shop and his mother was a seamstress.

He began learning piano at an early age and became known as the founder of Impressionist music, although he rejected the term.

Arguably his most famous composition is Claire de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque.

It demonstrates a style far removed from the strict adherence to form and development which dominated classical music at the time. His music is full of colour and emotion, sensation and fleeting atmospheres.

His use of harmony and musical structure prompted the registrar at the Paris Conservatory, where he studied, to ask what rules he followed when composing.

“My pleasure,” he is reported to have replied, and it seems that he followed the same principle in his romantic life, which was so extremely colourful and varied that even his close friends remonstrated with him.

They even set up a fund to support his first wife when he abandoned her.

But Debussy’s first concern was always music, and it was said of him that he only really ever loved his daughter by his second wife, who died when she was still a teenager.

The house is small, and although Debussy only lived there until he was five years old, it contains many of his belongings as well as scores, programmes, memorabilia and ornaments.

It also contains one of his tuxedos and a death mask, which gives a strong impression of his personality.

There is a beautiful Steinway piano on the third floor, where recitals of his music are held (mainly in the summer) and temporary exhibitions are also arranged.

Unless you already know a lot about Debussy, going round the house alone may not be the best bet, however.

The tourist office offers a selection of guided tours, one of them with a pianist (when available) who will really explain the composer’s work.

Afterwards, head out to the Forêt de St-Germain-en-Laye, which offers fabulous views over Paris as well as glimpses of deer, wild boar and squirrels to those patient and quiet enough to spot them.

It is an ideal place to let children and dogs run about, criss-crossed with paths used by cyclists and joggers as well dog-walkers. Wrap up warm in the winter months.

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