Trains, Planes, Automobiles...and a Bicycle!
You’ve probably heard the famous quote, sometimes attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” And maybe you’ve seen the famous 1950s Cunard cruise line ads with the great slogan, “Getting there is half the fun!” The idea is that, no matter what the method of travel, the actual travel experience is as important as your final destination.
There were plenty of musical pieces written about travel by horses, carriages, and ships through the ages, but in the mid-1800s more modern modes of transportation began inspiring composers.
For example, in 1847, Hans Christian Lumbye, who was known for “light” music, including waltzes and galops, celebrated the first railway in Denmark between Copenhagen and Roskilde with The Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop. It’s a short dance, with one full minute needed to set the mood as the train begins to pull out of the station. At 01:20, though, it’s “full steam ahead!” Neeme Järvi conducts the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra:
As the piece ends, Lumbye wants the listener to experience the train coming to a full stop at the next station.
Here’s another about trains. Swiss composer Arthur Honegger wrote Mouvement Symphonique in 1923 but renamed the piece Pacific 231 after a type of steam locomotive. A great fan of trains, Honegger described the piece as, “The quiet breathing of the machine at rest, its effort in starting, then the gathering speed, the progress from mood to mood, as a 400-ton train hurtles through the dark night, racing 120 miles an hour.” Here’s a fun video with more of the story, and Maurice Abravanel conducting the Utah Symphony:
Honegger was reported to have said about trains: “For me, they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses.”
In 1988 Steve Reich wrote Different Trains, a string quartet for the Kronos Quartet.
The link to the actual music is below, but first, I found this brief story-behind-the-piece fascinating:
And here’s Part 1 of Different Trains with the Kronos Quartet.
The first movie to which I brought my then 3-year-old was 2004’s The Polar Express, based on the delightful Chris Van Allsburg storybook of the same title. The score was composed by Alan Silvestri, who wanted the audience, and especially children in the audience, to feel the forward motion of the train through the music. Here is the song “Polar Express” from the original soundtrack. The voice of the conductor is the star, Tom Hanks.
Let’s “move” now from trains to automobiles, and a piece by Massachusetts-born composer Frederick Converse, who was inspired to try composing for the transportation category after hearing the Honegger train piece above. He liked how Pacific 231 conveyed forward motion. In 1927 Converse got to celebrate both the Ford Model T (often referred to with a slang nickname, the ‘flivver’) and the burgeoning American factory era in his long-titled piece, Flivver Ten Million: A Joyous Epic Inspired by the Familiar Legend “The Ten Millionth Ford is now Serving its Owner.” The tone poem is made up of 8 sections that are played without pause. JoAnn Falletta conducts the Buffalo Philharmonic:
Converse said about the piece, “I set about it for my own amusement. I wondered what Mark Twain would have done with such a theme if he had been a musician. He who wishes to express American life or experience must include the saving grace of humor.”
Several decades later in 1958, Dmitri Shostakovich included a driving scene in his operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki. In the opening act, two old friends, Boris, an explosives expert, and Sergei, a chauffeur, drive seven friends to a new housing project in Moscow, known as Cherrytown. The driving scene is only about three minutes long, but you can picture the two frantic drivers with their full capacity cars trying to negotiate the roads and traffic. Here’s Riccardo Chailly conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra:
In 1986 composer John Adams was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to write something for their summer concert series at the Great Woods Festival. Adams wrote two short pieces called “Fanfares for Orchestra.” The first is “Tromba Lontana” (Italian for “Distant Trumpet”) and the second is “A Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” When asked about the story behind the title, Adams said, “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?” Here, Marin Alsop conducts the the BBC Symphony Orchestra at a 2014 Proms concert:
Although composed by an American about American automobile culture, “A Short Ride in a Fast Machine” has been performed at three BBC Proms so far.
American composer Michael Daugherty’s father was a used car salesman, and while honoring his dad in Used Car Salesman, Daugherty also makes fun of that profession’s stereotypical shifty pitches to get someone to buy. The piece from 2000 for percussion ensemble includes spoken text. You know you’re in for a fun ride as the percussionists enter shouting, “I’ve got used cars right here!” Here’s the Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble:
Alright, if neither steam trains chug-chug-chugging along nor traffic jams on the roads interest you for your summer vacation transportation choices, you can always take to the skies!
Airplanes were barely out of their childhood when George Antheil imagined the power and possibility of airplanes with his 1921 Airplane Sonata. In his autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, he wrote, “I called it that because, as a symbol, the airplane seemed most indicative of that future into which I wanted to escape.” Pianist Anna Kislitsyna plays it here:
A little-known fact about Antheil is that, along with his official career as a composer, he had many interests, including scientific discovery. He teamed up with the glamorous movie actress Hedy Lamarr, and in 1941 the pair developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes.
In 1997 The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned four composers to write music for the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight. Just in time for the anniversary in 2003, the DPO released a recording of the four pieces, including Michael Schelle’s Wright Flight. Schelle’s five movements include two in which you hear an imitation of the sounds of building the Wrights’ first airplane, and then later versions being built as well. Neal Gittleman conducts:
Whatever your favorite mode of transportation, summer vacation season is here! Just remember to pack 99.5 WCRB! (Download our free phone app and you can take us around the block or around the world!)
CODA: Oh, the bicycle I mentioned in the title? Can there be any better moment for bicycling music as when it accompanies young Elliot and E.T.? John Williams painted the scene for us: