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Dream Vacations

A canal in Venice, Italy, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco, California, and Big Ben in London, England.
Clockwise from left: Tom Bradley, Maarten van den Heuvel, Mathew Browne
Scenes from Venice, San Franscisco, and London.

It’s vacation season. For some of us, putting feet up on the back deck sounds like the perfect vacation vibe, but for others of us a non-stop, jam-packed trip to a "bucket list" city is a dream come true. It’s that way for composers, too. Many have written pieces about cities they’ve visited for work or, simply, for vacation. Here are a few:

Mikhail Glinka spent two years in Spain, where he headed after his marriage dissolved. He arrived in Spain on his birthday and wrote to his mother that he was “completely delighted” by what he saw. Although he said his intention was to study authentic Spanish melodies so that he could write a major Spanish-themed piece when he returned to Russia, one of his most famous pieces came out of this extended stay: Memories of A Summer Night in Madrid. Conductor Luciano Di Martino with the NDK Sofia, Bulgaria:

In letters to his mother back in Russia, Glinka not only detailed the overall beauty of the country and how impressed he was with Spanish theatre, but also that he had been welcomed more warmly there than in all the other countries he had been to.

Staying in Spain, Isaac Albéniz honored the Queen of Spain in 1886 by describing, musically, some of the most beautiful areas of his home country. He originally intended to include only three cities, Granada, Cataluña, and Sevilla, along with Cuba (which was a Spanish colony in the 1880s), but he ended up making it an eight-movement suite, adding descriptions of Cádiz, Asturias, Aragón, and CastillaAlthough written originally as a suite for solo piano, Suite española No. 1 has become a favorite of guitarists as well. Here’s Julian Bream playing “Granada.”

In addition to naming cities or regions in Spain, Albéniz also assigned each place a description of the music: Granada (Serenade), Cuba (Nocturne), and so on, to alert the listener to the style of music associated with that city.

French composer Georges Bizet won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1857. The prize included studying music for two years in Rome. He not only studied, but he also took advantage of his time in Italy by exploring as many cities as he could get to. His original intention was to write a symphony with each movement representing different cities he had visited, including Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples. He finished the “Scherzo” movement first (which was supposed to represent Florence) for a piece he ultimately titled Symphony No. 2, Roma. Here’s Lamberto Gardelli conducting the Munich Radio Orchestra:

It took Bizet about 10 years to finish his Rome Symphony. He wrote and rewrote just about every section, finally setting it aside in 1871. The final version we know today wasn’t premiered until after his death in 1875, and not published until 1880.

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was writing a symphonic poem about London but changed it to a full symphony sometime in 1912 or 1913, at the urging of his friend and colleague George Butterworth. In the 45-minute-long piece, Vaughan Williams starts the day with a slow sunrise over the River Thames complete with the chimes of Big Ben (officially called “Westminster Quarters”). He then takes the listener down to Bloomsbury Square and to the Westminster Embankment as the daylight ends. Finally, the day turns into night with those same solemn chimes from Big Ben. Here is the third movement, the Scherzo, with Keith Lockhart conducting the Brevard Concert Orchestra:

Early on, Vaughan Williams seemed to be conflicted about whether A London Symphony was “enough about” London. He even toyed with changing the name to Symphony by a Londoner. The symphony underwent a few major revisions in the two dozen years that followed (the 1936 version was his final and official version), but he never changed the title.

One more stopover in England with Sir Charles Hubert Parry (who was one of Vaughan Williams’s teachers). Parry tried to capture the “soul of England” in his Symphony No. 2, Cambridge. He said it was named Cambridge for two reasons: in honor of the Cambridge (England) Musical Society, and because the piece paints a picture of undergraduate life at the University. Here’s the third movement, with Andrew Penny conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra:

On the surface, one would think Il Carnevale di Venezia, Op. 10 (The Carnival of Venice), was an original tune about Venice. But one would be wrong. The great violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini took a well-known Neapolitan folk tune (“O Mamma, Mamma Cara,”) and wrote 20 variations on it. He hoped the new title would transport the listener to Venice and the festivities leading up to Mardi Gras. Violinist Salvatore Accardo joins the Chamber Orchestra of Europe:

Paganini described the original folk tune as “graceful” in a letter to a friend, and added “I can’t describe it.” You’ll have to decide whether the piece feels more like Venice or Naples to you!

Composer Richard Addinsell was asked to write the soundtrack for a World War II-era British movie titled Dangerous Moonlight. The movie is about a Polish pianist-composer who becomes a pilot to help defend his country against the Nazis. At one point in the movie, the pianist-pilot sits in a bombed-out building, picking out a tune on a piano, which he describes to a reporter as his Warsaw Concerto. Here is pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with conductor Hugh Wolff leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra:

The concerto is never heard in its entirety in the movie. Small sections are woven through other parts of the soundtrack. The main theme was so welcomed by movie-goers that the Warsaw Concerto became a concert piece unto itself. By the way, the movie was released here in the United States with a different title, Suicide Squadron.

Meredith Wilson, the composer who gave us the soundtrack for the Broadway musical and movie The Music Man, wrote his first symphony in, and about, San Francisco. Wilson was the music director at the NBC and ABC radio affiliates in San Francisco in the 1930s. He started writing his Symphony No. 1, he said, as he watched the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge from his office. He also added references to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 that leveled much of the city, but, not to dwell on that devastation, he added San Francisco’s growth as an industrial city. Here is the third movement, with William Stromberg conducting the Moscow Symphony Orchestra:

Wilson gave the symphony a second name, The Symphony of San Francisco.

How about one for the other coast? Norwegian-born contemporary composer Ola Gjeilo came to New York City to study at Juilliard, and now makes his home there. He explained that he fell in love with the city, the skyline, the lights, and the excitement, and in Night, also with the calm he felt when the city settled down. I think if you sit back with the whole piece in the background and just let it flow, you’ll feel like you’re looking out on the streets of the city below.

There are countless other cities remembered and honored by composers through the ages. Let’s just call this our first of many. Keep your bags packed!

CODA: The website Virtual Vacation puts a video camera on someone’s head as they walk the main streets of major cities around the world. Once you get over the fact that the camera view is a bit unsteady because the person is walking, you do get to see some great sites as though you were right there! Happy vacation planning!

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.