The souvenir shop we went into on Martha’s Vineyard last month had the usual suspects: T-shirts and sweats, postcards, I-heart-MV bumper stickers, and everything from collector spoons to fridge magnets emblazoned with the words Martha’s Vineyard. And by the way, the same types of things we found over the years in NYC, Orlando, Mount Rushmore, San Francisco – you get the idea.
In times long past the great composers, too, would travel, sometimes in the hopes of landing a job with foreign royalty, sometimes on bona fide sightseeing vacations, sometimes for just a rest. None of them bought the T-shirt. But most of them brought home something else altogether: inspiration.
As we all look back on the summer vacation season share our favorite vacation remembrances on social media and with friends, here are a few from some of the composers we know and love.
Felix Mendelssohn always wins the travelers prize with me because he not only made musical notations on his trips, but he also drew sketches and painted what he saw. He felt that seeing the visuals would help him better remember the travel experiences and sounds when he was back home, writing his travel-inspired music.
He traveled to Scotland when he was 19, and I remember reading years ago that his mother had asked him to visit historian and novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose works she loved, while he was there. He and his traveling companion made the pilgrimage up to see Scott but found him preparing to leave his estate. Mendelssohn described it as “superficial conversation” at best and he expressed regret at having gone 80 miles for nothing.
On the other hand, he delighted in visiting Edinburgh, the Highlands, the islands of Staffa (where he saw Fingal’s Cave) and Iona, traveling from Oban to Glasgow. At one point he wrote: “Why need I describe it? When God himself takes to panorama painting, it turns out strangely beautiful.” His souvenirs included The Hebrides Overture (aka Fingal’s Cave) and the Symphony No. 3, the “Scottish.”
Here’s Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic:
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky suffered greatly after a disastrous marriage came to an end. His psychiatrist actually “prescribed” a trip to Italy saying that a change of scenery to that warm clime might help him clear his mind. By all accounts Tchaikovsky didn’t want to go, and he seemed determined to have a miserable time.
Even so, he brought back inspiration in the form of his string sextet, Souvenir of Florence, the main theme of which he wrote in Florence, and his Capriccio Italien, Op. 45. If you wonder why you hear what sounds like a somber bugle at the start of the Capriccio it’s because Tchaikovsky’s Rome hotel was near the royal military barracks and he heard the bugle every morning. That mood passes quickly, and he includes an Italian street band, folk songs, and even an enthusiastic tarantella danced by many towards the end. This is Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:
French composer Darius Milhaud visited Brazil in 1917-1918 after arthritis kept him from serving in the army during World War I. His Saudades do Brasil (Salutations from Brazil) were originally 12 pieces for solo piano based on tango and samba rhythms, each named after a different neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. The pieces were later orchestrated. This version is with the Capella Cracoviensis conducted by Karl Anton Rickenbacher.
Alabama native William Dawson wrote his Negro Folk Symphony, which he based on Negro spirituals (what he called “folk music”), in 1934. In the early 1950s he traveled to West Africa in search of “authentic African rhythms,” describing the trip as an attempt to “find what was lost” when Africans were taken from their continent to become slaves. He revised his symphony in 1952, incorporating a number of rhythms he discovered on his travels. Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra recorded it in 1963. Here’s the first movement, “The Bond of Africa.”
And finally, imagine being a young pianist. You’re 24 years old, going town to town, crossing the country, just trying to make a little money. One night in 1916, you stop in Arizona for a rest and wake up to the most magnificent sight: sunrise over the Grand Canyon.
Ferde Grofé wanted to capture that experience in music and finished writing his most famous piece, the tone poem The Grand Canyon Suite in 1931. In a radio interview in the 1950s Grofe described the sight: “...as it got lighter and brighter you could hear the birds chirping and nature coming to life. All of a sudden, bingo! There it was, the sun.” Here’s Lorin Maazel and the Philadelphia Orchestra recreating the splendor for us.
Whether you’re looking forward to world travel again, or you’re content with being an armchair adventurer, remember the words of some great musicians like Susan Sontag: “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list,” and Louis Armstrong: “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”