06 April 2021
The Aix-en-Provence ‘Festival de Pâques’ was founded in 2013 by the French violinist Renaud Capuçon and takes place in several venues across the town, including the historic 18th century Théâtre du Jeu de Paume and the spectacular Grand Théâtre de Provence. This annual festival runs for two weeks over the Easter period and attracts internationally renowned musicians. Since 2015, Emilie Capulet has been leading an ACE tour each year to Aix-en-Provence to attend the Festival; here, she shares some of her insights and experiences of the city.
(Header image - the Fontaine de la Rotonde)
The town the Romans called ‘Aquae Sextiae’ (the waters of Sextius), when they discovered its wealth of warm healing thermal springs, is a city of fountains. The prosperity of the town grew from and around its water, and, with it, centuries of art, music and culture. From its humble beginnings as a small village in southern Gaul, whose striking statues and artefacts were discovered during the excavations at Entremont (now to be seen in the Musée Granet), and after a turbulent Roman and medieval period, it was the advent in the 15th century of the last King of Provence, known affectionately in Aix as ‘Le Bon Roi René’ (‘The Good King René’), that marked the real turning point in the fortunes of a city which had become by then the capital of Provence.
The Roi René, a great patron of the arts, invited painters, jewellers, embroiderers, writers and musicians from all over Europe to his court. The triptych of The Burning Bush, painted by the early Renaissance artist Nicolas Froment in 1476, can still be seen in the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur. To the delight of his subjects, the Roi René organised popular jousting tournaments and created numerous festivals, including the ‘Jeux de la Fête-Dieu’ – several days of carnival, processions, street theatre, music and revelry where one would dance to the sound of the traditional galoubet and tambourin, the flute and tabor still played today in Provence.
The Cloister, Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur
The 17th and 18th centuries saw the characteristic Baroque architecture of the town take shape. As we walk through the streets of Aix, we are struck by the warm ochre tones of the elegant façades of the aristocratic mansions, or ‘hôtels particuliers’ as they are called, built out of great sandstone blocks brought over from the quarry at Bibémus a few miles outside the town and which were to inspire Cézanne two centuries later. The Archbishop Michel Mazarin, brother of the famous Cardinal Jules Mazarin, redrew some of Aix’s narrow and winding medieval streets, pulling down the southernmost ramparts to open up a large sweeping avenue, now known as the Cours Mirabeau, bordered by an entire new ‘modern’ quarter, the Quartier Mazarin, built on a geometric grid plan. Secret gardens and fountains are hidden away behind the ornate façades, which are often adorned with the characteristic and imposing Atlantean figures supporting first floor balconies with great poise and grandeur.
The sound of water echoes through the quiet squares as we pass the Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins, a fountain sculpted by Jean-Claude Rambot in 1667, whose dolphins are a ‘clin d’œil’ towards Baroque art and its classical sources of inspiration. Today, the Cours Mirabeau is bustling with the terraces of its historical cafés, and seeing its oldest and most famous establishment, the ‘Deux Garçons’, we are reminded of the artists and musicians who were associated with Aix. This café had become the regular meeting place of the childhood friends Paul Cézanne and Emile Zola at the turn of the 20th century, and has, over the years, welcomed Darius Milhaud, Pablo Picasso, Blaise Cendrars, Mistinguett, Francis Poulenc, Edith Piaf, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Marcel Pagnol, André Malraux, Jean Cocteau, Charles Trenet, Alain Delon and Winston Churchill...
Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins, Quartier Mazarin
Aix is first and foremost known for its Festival d’Art Lyrique, a summer opera festival of international renown which has been running since 1948 in the beautiful open-air acoustics of the inner courtyard of the 18th century Archbishop’s Palace, next to the cathedral. This year’s programme reflects the diversity of the festival’s musical vision: alongside its now traditional performance of a Mozart opera, which has featured in every festival since its inception (this year will be Le Nozze di Figaro), festival-goers will hear Verdi’s Falstaff, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, and world premieres by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (Innocence) and Samir Odeh-Tamimi (The Arab Apocalypse). The opera festival also includes orchestral and chamber music performances, an academy welcoming young musicians and youth orchestras from all over the world in order to develop contemporary creations and productions, as well as a celebration of Mediterranean music and culture.
2007 saw the inauguration of the Grand Théâtre de Provence at the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau, a new state-of-the-art concert hall seating over 1300 people. It is designed by the architects Vittorio Gregotti and Paolo Colao, and its exterior façade is a reflection of the geometric lines and bold mineral colours of the Sainte Victoire Mountain that Cézanne was to paint nearly a hundred times over. Hosting concerts all year round, it has been the home of the Festival de Pâques since 2013. The Festival de Pâques acts as a springtime counterpoint to the Festival d’Art Lyrique in the summer, so that music lovers are spoilt for choice.
More often than not, one can see and talk to the musicians who are having a croissant for breakfast at the café terraces on the Cours Mirabeau. It was quite surreal to come face-to-face with ‘Ulysses’ at breakfast time the day after the performance of Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses a few years ago. The sense that our perception of reality is more vibrant and colourful for having experienced that shared moment of music is what makes Aix’s festivals so special. From its operas, symphonies, song recitals and chamber music to the art of Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas, Picasso, Bonnard or Klee (now housed in the Planque collection at the Musée Granet), from its al fresco lunches and convivial dinners in the best brasseries of the city to the invigorating walks through the olive green forests, vineyards and red earth of the Provençal countryside, all these things take on a meaning which is unique to that place and time for being framed within a shared musical experience.
At Easter we have seen, amongst others, Martha Argerich, Rudolf Buchbinder, Ian Bostridge, Nelson Freire, Lucas Debargue, the Hagen Quartet, Veronika Eberle, John Eliot Gardiner and Sir András Schiff. Orchestras have included the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Russian National Orchestra. What makes this festival so attractive is the diverse and often surprising repertoire it showcases, ranging from Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, famously described as a concerto for birds and orchestra, to all five Beethoven piano concertos in one day, from Schubert’s song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, to Johann Strauss Waltzes and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, from Debussy and Webern’s string quartets, to Ravel’s luminous G major piano concerto. There is always something to talk about, to discover or rediscover at the Festival de Pâques.
Grand Théâtre de Provence
Following last year’s cancellation of the Festival de Pâques due to the coronavirus, they have made a comeback this year, though still without a live audience but with an inspiring festival programme entirely livestreamed free of charge on their website between 27 March and 11 April 2021. One of the particularities of the livestream is that you can choose your own camera angles during the concert, thus creating a very intimate and interactive feel to the performances.
This year’s concerts, lockdown oblige, have been primarily of chamber music and solo performances by musicians residing in France and able to travel to the festival, and on the livestream we have been treated to Momo Kodama’s masterful and intense performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, a socially distanced St Matthew Passion by JS Bach in l’Eglise de la Madeleine on Good Friday, and the full cycle of Brahms’s violin sonatas with Jean-Jacques Kantorow and François-Frédéric Guy. William Christie and his Arts Florissants performed a vibrant programme of Baroque music surprisingly intertwined with jazz. On Saturday, the evening was given over to lively Klezmer improvisations performed by the Sirba Octet, and on Easter Sunday, Saint-Saëns’ 100th anniversary was celebrated in a concert of his orchestral repertoire by Les Siècles.
Highlights this week are Brahms’s violin concerto (with Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider and Orchestre National de France), the Bach double violin concerto (with Renaud Capuçon, Bilal Al Nemr and the Paris Mozart Orchestra), Piazzolla on trumpet and accordion (Lucienne Renaudin-Vary and Félicien Brut), Vivaldi (with the Ensemble Jupiter) and the Festival’s closing concert featuring Mendelssohn and Bruch’s string octets. Not to be missed!
For more information on this year’s festival, and to join the remaining livestreamed concerts, visit the festival's website by clicking here.
To register your interest in a future ‘Festival de Pâques’ tour, contact the ACE office by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org
All images © Emilie Capulet