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TRAVELS WITH FRANZ LISZT
The length and breadth of Europe
As a travelling piano virtuoso, Franz Liszt spent much of his life criss-crossing Europe impressing audiences – including numerous female groupies – with his superhuman musical abilities.
»My piano is for me what his frigate is to the seaman, the horse to the Arab«, he used to say. From 1848 onwards he recorded the experiences and impressions gathered on these journeys over a period of forty years, and that »stirred deep emotions« in him, in musical diaries called the »Années de pèlerinage«.
The suites include atmospheric evocations of Italian landscapes and Swiss mountain lakes, glistening imitations of fountains and springs, and the echo of literary discoveries such as Petrarch and Dante.
At a total length of more than two and a half hours, the »Années de pèlerinage« represent a vast world unto itself, one that is still well worth travelling.
My piano is for me what the frigate is to the seaman, the horse to the Arab.
A metaphor for human life: a journey through the storms of life from birth to death
TRAVELS WITH RICHARD STRAUSS
An Alpine Symphony
In the summer of 1879, the 15-year-old Richard Strauss climbed to the 1,800-metre summit of the Heimgarten in the Bavarian Prealps. He set off in darkness so that he could view the sunrise from the peak. On the descent, however, he encountered a heavy thunderstorm.
He later translated this experience into music: »Of course, a giant tone painting and all that nonsense following Wagner«, he admits. Many years later – long after achieving world fame as a composer – Strauss based his last great orchestral work, the hour-long »Alpine Symphony« (1915), on the same experience.
Opinion is still divided about the result. Some delight in the intoxicating sound panorama (an orchestra of 125 musicians, plus wind and thunder sheet), while others accuse Strauss of naive bombast. However, the piece can also be interpreted in another way: as a metaphor for human life, as a journey through the storms of life from birth to death.
Travels with Johann Sebastian Bach
»Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother«
It is not known with any certainty when or why Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his »Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother«. Perhaps it was when his older brother Johann Jacob joined the Swedish military band as an oboist in 1704, when Sweden was conquering Poland; perhaps it was a farewell to his best friend Georg Erdmann, who left Lüneburg after the end of their school days there in 1702.
Whatever the real story behind it, the ten-minute piano piece with its vivid titles is unique in Bach’s oeuvre. The first movement is a »persuasion« in sweet sixths »addressed to the friends, that they may withhold him from his journey«. A bold modulating fugue depicts »the dangers which may befall him in the foreign country«.
The friends then strike up a »general lamentation« that bears an uncanny resemblance to the »Crucifixus« from Bach’s Mass in B minor, written 45 years later. They finally part to the bold hooting sound of the aria of the postilion’s horn, complete with fugue.
TRAVELS WITH MODEST MUSSORGSKY
»Pictures at an Exhibition«
Art exhibitions such as the one that inspired Mussorgsky’s famous work (1874) may be static affairs, but the subject of travel arises in two ways. The first instance is the »Bydło« movement, which portrays a heavy ox-drawn cart rattling along monotonously on rumbling wheels.
The second is the »Promenade« theme, which is repeated several times, symbolising the composer himself wandering through the exhibition. Even though his character remains unchanged, the pictures he views affect him, they influence his attitude and mood. There is surely no better metaphor for the journey as an active process of gathering and digesting new impressions.
If I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.
Travels with Steve Reich
On long train journeys
As a child of divorce, the American composer Steve Reich often travelled back and forth between his parents during the 1940s – his mother lived in Los Angeles and his father lived in New York.
The composer later processed these long train journeys in the hypnotic piece »Different Trains« for string quartet and tape, a textbook example of minimal music.
He gathered the musical material from previously recorded snippets of sound: locomotive noises, the voice of the guard calling the names of stations, and reports by Holocaust survivors. Reich once laconically said: »I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.«
Martial marching rhythms and a belief in a better world
Travels with Hanns Eisler
Belief in a better, more just world
Hanns Eisler travelled a lot over the course of his life, but that was often of necessity. Born in Leipzig in 1898, he was raised in Vienna, where he studied under Arnold Schönberg.
As an active communist, congenial partner to Bertolt Brecht and son to a Jewish father, he had to flee Berlin when the Nazis came to power in 1933, later staying in Prague, Vienna, Paris, London, Moscow, Spain, Mexico, Denmark and the USA. It was during this period that he wrote his »Reisesonate« (Travel Sonata) for violin and piano (1937).
Given the global situation around the time of composition, it is no surprise that this is anything but jolly excursion music. The sonata explores extreme emotional ranges of expression, caricatures the grimace of Hitler’s regime with martial marching rhythms and, at the end, formulates a passionate credo in a better, more just world.
Travels with Antonín Dvořák and Arthur Honegger
The steam locomotive – a smoking, hissing, thudding steel mass that revolutionised public mobility – is undoubtedly one of the most powerful symbols of technical progress.
Two famous composers were also avid trainspotters: Antonín Dvořák (who walked to Prague’s main station every day) and the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who lived in Paris for much of his life. The latter immortalised his favourite locomotive – the »Pacific« class – in a five-minute orchestral piece in 1923. He insisted that his aim was never to »imitate its sounds«, but to »reproduce an optical impression and a physical sensation of wellbeing«.
The title »Pacific 231« (2-3-1 describes the locomotive’s axle arrangement) alone gives away the nerd, never mind the composer’s explanation. In the piece, you hear, says Honegger, »the quiet breath of the stationary engine, the exertion of departure, the acceleration and the tremendous spectacle of the 300-tonne train hurtling through the darkness of night at 120 km/h«.
Text: Clemens Matuschek
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