One of the things I love most about exploring the “deep heart of France” is finding events and experiences that translate the region’s rich history into something I can taste, touch, see or hear for myself. Today’s post is about one of the most extraordinary experiences you can have in central France, one which lets you go very far off the beaten path and be absorbed into one of the country’s hidden artistic delights.
I’m talking about the great abbey church of La Chaise Dieu, where this August you can go for the 50th anniversary of an extraordinary classical music festival.
But…the town is synonymous with its great medieval abbey -- the ancient Abbey of Saint Robert. Built beginning in 1344 in honor of the saint who founded his order here in 1043, it’s a colossal stone block of a structure that dominates the horizon for miles around the village. Pope Clement VI, who reigned during the years of the Black Death in the 1300s, started here as a young monk so is buried here and (as in many French churches, great or small) the building is rich in medieval tapestries and art.
It’s not easy to get there, though. This is one of France’s wildest, least-populated regions. La Chaise Dieu itself is 3,500 feet above sea level, deep in the vast Livradois forest in southwestern France, with only two hotels and a handful of restaurants (including the classic French “bar snacks” and pizza places). For most of the year, only 725 people live in town.
It’s a surprising setting for the major international festival of classical music staged here every August for the last forty-nine years. Still, festival director Julien Caron expects more than 25,000 people to come to this isolated outpost again this August to hear world-class artists like violinist Svetlin Roussev, young clarinet star Raphaël Sévère, French pianist Vincent Larderet, and violinist Renaud Capuçon. They’ll be performing in the great hall of the abbey itself or one of the festival’s satellite sites – mostly also 11th-century churches in Le Puy en Velay and other towns around the region.
“We’re a generalist festival,” Caron told me, “with three main pillars: sacred music (because we play mainly in churches), symphonic music (because we have the largest auditorium in France’s Massif Central), and piano music (because the festival was founded by the great pianist Georges Cziffra in 1966).”
This year’s program has rich offerings in all three categories. Several examples of “big” music are on offer, including an evening of Russian music with the Berlin Philharmonic and a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. There are other gems as well: this year, the sacred program expands to include music from South America, and there will be recreations of a Medici wedding festival from the Renaissance and an evening with two South Korean choirs singing music by Verdi and Puccini.
For the 50th anniversary, though, the highlight will be a recreation of the first-ever grand symphonic concert that started the festival in 1966. For me, the most exciting part of the program will be the chance to hear Franz Liszt’s Danse Macabre.
Before the performance, you’ll be able to see the great fresco of a real “dance of death”, painted on the abbey’s walls in the late 1400s. Remember that France was just emerging from the devastation of the Black Plague and the Hundred Years’ War – events that cut down half the country’s population. The painting is grim and viscerally appealing – death comes in the form of corpses dragging down everyone in sight, from great lords to bourgeois merchants and common laborers. See the painting, then go for the performance and feel the profound frisson that comes from this incredible intersection of history and live music!
This year’s event is August 18th - August 28th. Buy tickets at www.chaise-dieu.com, and get a list of recommended hotels and B&Bs at www.la-chaise-dieu.info. (La Chaise Dieu itself has only 725 people, so you may need to book a room in other towns thirty or forty minutes away.) Get to the village by flying to Lyon or Clermont-Ferrand and renting a car to take you (by Road D4 or D499) to the Abbey Saint Robert.
What's your favorite festival or cultural event in France? Please tell us about it in the space below!