Paris Classical Music History Self-Guided Walking Tour: 9th Arrondissement (Opera area)
Updated: Mar 31
Paris is full of history, and for classical music lovers, the 9th arrondissement is a great place to start to discover it! This is the area where the splendid Palais Garnier is found, and many classical music figures have lived in, worked in, and visited its streets. The actual walk itself should take a little over an hour. Accounting for stopping to read about the locations and taking your time to explore, plan for a couple of hours. This self-guided tour ends at the Musée de la Vie Romantique, where you can visit the museum and stop for food and a toilet break.
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15 Boulevard de la Madeleine - Marie Duplessis: Verdi's Violetta
15 Boulevard de la Madeleine
The opera "La Traviata" by Verdi was based on the play "La Dame aux camélias" (previously a novel) by Alexandre Dumas fils. Dumas' tale was inspired by the real life of Marie Duplessis (Violetta in the opera): French courtesan, socialite, and the lover of several prominent men in 1800s Paris, including Dumas himself. Duplessis had a difficult childhood involving violence and sexual abuse, and was sold by her father twice before being brought to Paris. Here her beauty and elegance began to be recognised, and as a courtesan she began to gain access to wealth, education, and a life she would never have dreamed possible.
Her apartment at 11 (now 15) Boulevard de la Madeleine was acquired for her by Count Gustav Ernst von Stackelberg, one of her lovers. She hosted many visitors here, including politicians, writers, artists; she was known for her intelligence and wit as well as her beauty. She inspired many who met her, and she was the muse for several works of art in different domains. Among her lovers, pianist and composer Franz Liszt was one of the last; they shared some similar experiences, and for about three months were inseparable. She begged him to bring her with him on tour, but unfortunately her health made this impossible. Less than a year later, she died from tuberculosis at the age of only 23.
Check out this La Traviata self-guided walking tour of Paris I found on Paris for Dreamers.
One of the two current homes of the Paris Opera (the Opéra Bastille being the second), the Palais Garnier was built at the behest of Napoleon III. Architect Charles Garnier won a competition to design the opera house, after initially placing 5th in the first round. His design drew inspiration from many sources, particularly classical Greece, for both the exterior and interior. Fourteen painters, mosaicists and seventy-three sculptors were needed for the exterior, which uses seventeen different kinds of materials. The theatre has the largest stage in Europe, and the many rooms are full of history and fascinating stories. In 1964 Marc Chagall's artwork was installed on the ceiling of the main auditorium.
When the Palais Garnier was constructed, the groundwater was unexpectedly high, leading to some engineering challenges before the foundation was able to be laid. This led to the spreading of rumours about a secret underground lake, which inspired Gaston Leroux's novel "The Phantom of the Opera" (and subsequent Andrew Lloyd Webber musical). The seven-ton bronze and crystal chandelier and the breaking of one of its counterweights in 1896 inspired one of the most famous scenes. The Phantom has a box reserved which you can peer into when you visit the opera house.
Find details for self-guided and guided tours of the Palais Garnier.
8 Boulevard des Capucines
Jacques Offenbach was known primarily for his operettas and opéra bouffes (forms of comic opera). Born in Germany, his father brought the teenaged Offenbach and his brother to France to study music at a higher level. After a year at the Conservatoire, he left as academic study did not agree with him, and he took up some gigs as a cellist. He was quite the prankster and had his pay reduced due to some of the stunts he pulled - perhaps it is no surprise that he enjoyed composing comedy!
After some initial challenges, Offenbach's works brought him popularity and success until the Franco-Prussian War broke out and his German heritage aroused suspicion among the French. However, after the war, he was able to regain some of his losses here and there was renewed interest in his work. In 1877 he began working on his famous "Les contes d'Hoffmann" (The Tales of Hoffmann), and it was in his third-floor apartment on the Boulevard des Capucines where it came to life. Unfortunately his health failed before he could complete the orchestration, but the vocal score was complete enough for the work to be finished and edited (by his son and a family friend) as required by the theatre where it premiered in 1881.
2 Rue de la Chaussée d'Antin
Rossini's composition career began in Italy, where he was born. He moved to Paris in 1824 after negotiating a very good contract with the French government. His first new work here was "Il viaggio a Reims", which was the final opera he composed to an Italian libretto, after which he set to work composing his final four operas ever (in French). Guillaume Tell (William Tell) - his long-awaited work in the grand opera style - was one of these.
Rossini lived on the first floor of his Rue de la Chaussée d'Antin apartment from 1857 until his death in 1868, and had a second home in Passy (16th arrondissement). At this point, he was no longer composing opera (for reasons unknown but heavily debated), and his general compositional output was relatively low and mostly not intended for public performance. However, each Saturday, he and his wife (artists' model and courtesan Olympe Pélissier) hosted musical and culinary gatherings at their homes (Passy in the summer, this apartment in the winter), attended by top musicians, artists, and socialites. He composed more than 150 small pieces for these events, which he called his "Péchés de vieillesse" (Sins of old age).
12 Rue le Peletier
On the corner of Rue le Peletier and Rue Rossini, the Salle Le Peletier was the home of the Paris Opera from 1821 until it was destroyed by fire in 1873. Not a trace remains of this theatre, which was always intended to be temporary, as the land was portioned off and sold. However, this theatre was luxurious, with white and gold interiors, and featuring gas lamps illuminating the décor from 1822 - a new invention at that time. These lamps were likely the cause of the fire, which raged for 27 hours and destroyed everything. After the fire, the Paris Opera moved to the Salle Ventadour (now the home of the Banque de France) while the Palais Garnier was still under construction.
Many historic opera and ballet premieres took place here, including works by composers such as Rossini, Meyerbeer, Auber, Donizetti, Gounod, Verdi, Wagner, Berlioz, Délibes, and many more.
Some other interesting facts involving this theatre:
Masked balls were popular, and the cancan made its appearance from 1837
There was an attempted assassination on Napoleon III just outside (which led to the announcement of a new opera house with a more secure entrance being built)
It is the location of several Degas paintings and of Manet's "Bal masqué à l'opéra"
The famous chess match known as the "Opera Game" took place here
52 Rue La Fayette
Spanish composer, pianist, and conductor Isaac Albéniz was a child prodigy, passing the entrance exam for the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of 7, but being refused entrance because he was considered too young. He began touring at the age of 9, accompanied on his travels by his father, who was a customs agent. As a composer, he is best known for his piano works which were inspired by Spanish folk music. These works were also transcribed and became important in the classical guitar repertoire. He lived in this Paris apartment from 1880-1884, in the transition between the early and middle periods of his composition career.
The gate at 80 Rue Taitbout leads into the Square d'Orléans, a residential square built on land originally belonging to the family of Daniel Auber. Several important artistic figures lived here, including Frédéric Chopin, Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, and Pauline Viardot. The square can be visited by the public when the gate is open - the plaque marking Chopin's residence is found almost immediately after entering and turning left.
3 Rue d'Aumale
Richard Wagner may have spent less than a year in this second-floor apartment, but it was an important stay nonetheless: he was in Paris to present his opera "Tannhäuser". Unfortunately, he didn't have a very good time - he called the apartment "miserable and gloomy", and the awful weather and exhausting work he was doing led to him coming down with typhoid fever. The opera was to be presented in French for the French public, and a ballet was also added. The response from the audience was not good, in part because Wagner was there at the request of Napoleon III and there was political tension at the time. After only three performances, the season was put to an end and Wagner left Paris.
20 Rue Jean-Baptiste-Pigalle
Chopin met George Sand in 1836, in the salon of Marie d'Agoult - writer and historian, who, like Sand, used a male pen name - and her partner Franz Liszt. Ultimately, Chopin and Sand became fascinated with one another. In 1839, Sand rented two pavilions at no. 16 (now no. 20), and Chopin came daily to teach piano. In 1841, he moved into the pavilion where Sand's son Maurice lived. They later moved to the Square d'Orléans.
Across the road is the Square La Bruyère, which also has some fascinating history!
22 Rue de Douai
The Halévy family built the Hotel Halévy during the Second Empire. They had some notable figures among their ranks, such as composer Fromentin Halévy and librettist Ludovic Halévy, who wrote texts for works by composers such as Offenbach, Delibes, and Bizet. Bizet lived in the hotel from 1869 upon marrying Geneviève Halévy until his death in 1875, just a few months after the premiere of "Carmen". Painters Eugene Delacroix and Edgar Dégas also spent time at the hotel: the former had his atelier here, and the latter lived here.
4 Rue de Calais
Berlioz moved into this fourth-floor apartment in 1856 and remained there until his death. Although larger than his previous residence, he still complained that there was not enough space, especially when he needed to host his son Louis, and the building had defects which caused some hassle. Despite this, he saw no need to move. He composed his final great operas, "Les Troyens" and "Béatrice et Bénédict", here.
50 Rue de Douai
Pauline Viardot was a singer and composer - sister of singer Maria Malibran, and daughter of singer Manuel Garcia. She created several important opera roles, and Saint-Saëns dedicated his "Samson et Dalila" to her. She was very close with George Sand, and upon her advice ended up marrying theatre director and critic Louis Viardot. The Viardot family hosted many important artistic figures, often for Thursday musical soirées, including other composers such as Bizet, Berlioz, Rossini.
Square Hector Berlioz
This square appears to be just a standard playground, but there is also a statue of Hector Berlioz there to visit during quieter times of day!
3 Place Lili-et-Nadia-Boulanger
The Boulanger sisters were important figures in 20th century French music. Lili was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize, and completed some important works before her early death from illness at the age of 24. Her older sister Nadia was also a promising composer, but later decided to focus on conducting and teaching music; she taught many leading composers and musicians of the 20th century. Although she travelled often for teaching, she taught for nearly 7 decades from her apartment. She was the first woman to conduct a number of international orchestras in the US and Europe, and conducted some important world premieres, including works by composers such as Copland and Stravinsky.
9 Rue Chaptal
Greek composer Iannis Xenakis lived in this apartment from 1970 until his death in 2001. Due to political unrest in Greece and fears for his life, he fled with a fake passport through Italy, arriving in Paris in November 1947. He carried a lot of guilt about leaving his country, and saw music as not only an outlet for his own artistic expression, but also as a way of doing something significant in order to merit his right to life while others had died. In Greece, he was sentenced to death in absentia. After the fall of the Greek junta, his sentence was lifted, and he returned to visit the same year. Xenakis' work is highly mathematical and avant-garde, and he was recognised for his innovation. His research in the field of computer-aided composition brought him still more renown.
10 Rue Chaptal
Gaze up at the façade of 10 Rue Chaptal, and you'll spot Beethoven!
16 Rue Chaptal
The Musée de la vie Romantique is a lesser-known Paris museum, full of history for lovers of art and music! You'll see artifacts belonging to and learn more about some of the figures we've mentioned along the way, plus it's free to see the main exhibits! There is also a bathroom and café here, making it the perfect place to end this trip!
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