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Did you know that a surprising number of Paris churches serve as venues for musical concerts? And when better than the season of Advent to pause the bustle of your preparations and try one out? At dusk or after dark, you can leave the sparkle of a thronging street and enter a hushed, candlelit space to find people taking a moment to gaze around at the ancient architecture or to study their program in expectant silence.
Here then, are details of nine Paris churches where there will be concerts this month. We’ve given sample concerts from each one, along with suggestions for things to do in the immediate vicinity of each church. You can see the full list and check dates, times, prices and availability for everything mentioned below at this website. Tickets are selling well, so if you like the idea, do it sooner rather than later!
La Sainte Chapelle
The glorious Sainte Chapelle, resplendent on the Île de la Cité, will be offering a program of selected opera arias by various composers including Mozart, Strauss and Puccini. Of all the venues listed here, this is the most likely to sell out, so if you’d like to go you should check availability straight away.
The Sainte Chapelle dates from the 13th century, built by Louis IX to house the precious relics he’d brought back from a crusade to the Holy Land. The building itself is like a beautiful jewel box, with over a thousand panels of stained glass held in place by the slenderest of towering stone arches. Before the concert, why not do a little shopping at La Samaritaine, then take a short riverside walk across the Pont Neuf and down the Quai de l’Horloge past the Conciergerie to La Sainte Chapelle?
The highlight here will be a performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” on December 2nd at 8:30 pm. Bach wrote it to retell the Christmas story, from the birth of Christ to the journey of the magi and it was sung as part of church services on the religious feast days between Christmas Day and Epiphany.
St-Germain-des-Prés is the city’s oldest Romanesque church. The reds, creams, greens and gold of its interior seem almost to have been designed for the Christmas period. It is just across the street from the city’s two best-known literary cafés, Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore, either of which would make an excellent place for dinner before the concert. Or of course you could simply stroll the Boulevard St-Germain in either direction from the church (and next-door metro station) and find plenty of other bars and restaurants.
St Julien’s program offers several concerts each week during December. Musicians from the Ensemble Royal de Paris will be playing works by a variety of composers, ranging from Handel’s celebratory “Music for the Royal Fireworks” to Mozart’s somber “Lacrimosa du Requiem.”
Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre was built in the 12th century and is one of the oldest religious buildings in Paris, still with some original pillars and medieval arched windows. But there are Byzantine touches too – rich colors, icons and splashes of gold – because in the 19th century it became a Greek Catholic church. It is just south of Notre Dame, in the maze of little streets set back from the river which are full of restaurants. It’s also close to the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, which is open until 8 pm every day except Sunday when it closes at 7 pm.
The Christmas Concert at La Madeleine will be on Saturday 23rd December at 8:45 pm when a choir and orchestra will perform Christmas carols including the French favorite “Il est né le divin enfant.” There will be a real mix of other pieces, including religious works like “Ave Maria” by Saint-Saëns and Handel’s “Joy to the World,” classic hymns such as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and lighter pieces including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
La Madeleine is a Paris institution, the church where society weddings and high-profile funerals take place and has a large and beautiful interior of marble, blue and gold. Outside, you can stand on the steps and admire the view, straight down the Rue Royale and over the Place de la Concorde to the Seine. Very nearby you can do some Dior and Chanel-type shopping at the Village Royal and buy gourmet treats from shops like Maille (for connoisseurs of mustard) and the Café Prunier (for caviar) in the Place de la Madeleine. For luxury refreshments, you are close to the Grand Café Fauchon and to the splendidly art nouveau restaurant Maxim’s de Paris.
Christmas offerings at Saint-Sulpice this year include Handel’s “Messiah” on December 5th. It may have originally been written for Easter, but Part I is known as “the Christmas Portion’ and often performed during Advent. On December 22nd there will be a Christmas Concert, featuring a choir and an orchestra performing carols, classical pieces and Christmas songs such as the ever-popular “Petit Papa Noël.” On 30th December, there will be a Gospel Concert.
Saint-Sulpice is one of the most important churches in Paris. Highlights of a visit there include its spectacular organ, the Grand Orgue de Saint-Sulpice, which specialists from all over the world travel to hear and play. The nearby Marché Alimentaire Saint-Germain has a number of interesting food options and is open until 8 pm from Tuesday to Saturday. The Luxembourg Gardens are very close by, as are the Musée de Cluny, which is full of medieval treasures, and the Musée du Luxembourg, where an exhibition on Gertude Stein and Pable Picasso is showing until the end of January.
The December program here culminates in a Christmas Concert on December 23rd, promising a varied program of classical music for all tastes. Other December events advertised on the church’s own website include a program of Christmas music sung by the boys’ choir Les Petits Chanteurs de France, on December 10th at 5 pm.
Saint-Louis-en-l’Île is a beautiful baroque church right in the middle of the Île Saint-Louis. Inside you will find a large statue of Saint Louis himself, the 13th century king who founded the Sainte Chapelle. Before the concert you could wander the ancient streets of the island, where there are plenty of restaurants to choose from or, in about half an hour, walk right around the edge of the island and see views of Paris in all directions. Alternatively, cross the Pont Marie into the Marais or the Pont St-Louis to reach the Île de la Cité.
The Christmas Concert at Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, on December 23rd at 8:30 pm, will include Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” “Ave Maria,” and Christmas songs.
Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, where mass was first celebrated by the infamous Cardinal Richelieu in 1643, is an imposing church on the Rue Saint Antoine in the heart of the Marais district. It’s a short hop from the church to the Carnavalet Museum, the museum of Paris history, where entry is free. It closes at 6 pm, so after a museum visit you could seek out a restaurant in the Rue Saint Antoine or around the Place des Vosges.
There’s a wide choice on offer here, including candlelight concerts on eight different dates in December, some at dusk and some in the evening. Musicians from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique will play a varied program including seasonal favorites such as the “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Nutcracker.
Saint-Éphrem, small and quaint, dates from 1733 and is a hidden gem, tucked away in Rue des Carmes, near the Panthéon. Here you can explore the student areas of Paris, around the Sorbonne and the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, and perhaps visit some of the area’s bookshops or, of course, the Panthéon. The shops and restaurants of the Boulevard Saint Michel are just a short walk away.
The American Cathedral
Here on Sunday, 10th December at 3 pm, the annual Handel’s “Messiah Sing Along” will take place. Now in its 29th year, it’s always popular and usually sells out. The Paris Choral Society will lead the singing and it’s fairly informal, as described on their website: “Maybe you already can sing the whole of the Messiah, or maybe you can sing only bits and pieces of it, or maybe none of it. Who cares? Your pleasure will come from participating. Or if you wish, simply listening.”
The American Cathedral is on Avenue George V in the 8th arrondissement, so perfectly placed for little high-end shopping in the Golden Triangle, namely Avenue Montaigne, Avenue George V and the Champs-Elysées. Or, for a little less outlay, you could indulge in a spot of lèche-vitrine or stop off for a glass of something celebratory to mark the season of Advent.
Dates and details for all concerts mentioned can be found here
Another useful website is the Paris Tourism Office: Paris je t’aime
Lead photo credit : The Madeleine Church (Église de la Madeleine), as seen from the Madeleine plazza, in Paris (France), Photo: Jebulon/Wikimedia Commons