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The Inspiration of Travel

Felix Mendelssohn

“The whole country had such a festive air that I felt as if I were a young prince making his entry.” So said Felix Mendelssohn about his arrival in Italy. He later expressed the exuberance of the experience in his Italian Symphony. In fact, Mendelssohn may be the champion when it comes to translating travel into music. When he stood in the ruined chapel at the castle of Mary Queen of Scots he was deeply moved and wrote “I think I have found the beginning of my Scottish Symphony today.” Indeed he did, although it would take him some ten years to complete the symphony. On that same trip to Scotland he took a boat trip out to the Hebrides Islands, an excursion that would result in two things: a case of seasickness and the Hebrides Overture.

Or maybe the champion was Ferde Grofé, the New Yorker who orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Grofé traveled throughout the United States and reflected his travels in his Mississippi Suite, Niagara Falls Suite, Hudson River Suite, San Francisco Suite, Yellowstone Suite, and the immensely popular Grand Canyon Suite.

Dvorak’s time in the United States gave rise to a number of works, including, of course, the New World Symphony. Of special significance was his summertime journey to the Bohemian settlement of Spillville, Iowa, an escape from the hustle and bustle of New York. According to his assistant, Dvorak barely got settled in Spillville when he set to work on his “American” Quartet, a piece he completed in three days.

An interest in exotic music was one of Saint-Saëns trademarks and it was nourished by his love of travel. A trip in the early 1890s took him to Ceylon, Cairo and Alexandria. It was in Alexandria that he composed a fantasy for piano and orchestra that he titled “Africa.”  Saint-Saëns composed his Fifth Piano Concerto (“the Egyptian”) while visiting Cairo. Its second movement includes a love song he heard wafting across the Nile River. Saint-Saëns himself said that the entire concerto reflected a sea voyage. And, sure enough, the finale begins with the piano and kettledrum making a noise like a ship’s propeller.

Tchaikovsky found himself in Rome during the Roman carnival and was bothered by the “wild folly” of the carnival season, but he was also inspired. From Rome he wrote a letter to his patroness: “I have already completed the sketches for an Italian fantasia on folk tunes for which I believe a good fortune may be predicted. It will be effective, thanks to the delightful tunes which I have succeeded in assembling partly from anthologies, partly from my own ears in the streets.” That piece is Capriccio Italien, which begins with the bugle call he heard every morning from the army barracks next door to his hotel.

And then there was the composer who visited space, sort of. In the 1970s Joaquín Rodrigo, best known for his Concierto de Aranjuez, was a guest at NASA’s Space Center in Houston. They gave him the VIP treatment, introducing him to astronauts and letting him handle moon rocks. A few years later the Houston Symphony asked Rodrigo to compose something for the 1976 American bicentennial and he came up with A la busca del más allá (In Search of the Beyond), a symphonic poem inspired by the thought of space exploration.

Written by:
Alan Chapman
Alan Chapman
Published on 07.09.2020