Six Musical Postcards from Traveling Composers

Jul 21, 2017

The notion of the traveling musician is nothing new. From the transient troubadors of the 13th century to modern touring artists, musicianship and travel have gone hand in hand for centuries. 

With summer in full swing and families making pilgrimages to favorite beach spots and mountain retreats, spend some time with a few composers that found musical inspiration in their travels.  

Olivier Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles

In 1972, the French Messiaen visited Utah and Bryce Canyon National Park after seeing photographs of the landscape in a book. Both the colors and the wildlife of Bryce Canyon proved particularly stirring for Messiaen, who was both an avid transcriber of birdsongs and had sound-color synesthesia.  

The piece resulting from his travels, Des canyons aux étoiles… (From the canyons to the stars…) fulfilled a commission from art patron Alice Tully for a work to commemorate the United States bicentennial. But the devout Catholic composer wrote that his travels and composition were also a spiritual experience:

“From the canyons to the stars, that is to say, ascending from the canyons to the stars—and higher, to the resurrected in Paradise—in order to glorify God and all His creations. The beauties of the earth (its rocks and birdsong), and the beauties of the physical sky and the spiritual sky. Consequently, it is above all a religious work, a work of praise and contemplation. It is also a geological and astronomical work. The sound-colors include all the hues of the rainbow and revolve around the blue of the Steller’s Jay and the red of Bryce Canyon.” 

Steve Reich: Drumming

For master Ghanaian drummer Torgbui Midawo Gideon Foli Alorwoyie, African music is not something you just listen to. The practice, always intertwined with dance, can be spiritual, ceremonial and even practical — for his people, a drum pattern can be translated into specific phrases and used to communicate.

When Steve Reich traveled to Ghana in 1970 to study with Mr. Alorwoyie, he became immersed in a culture in which music was not a separate art, but an integral part of everyday life. And even though Reich’s studies were cut short when he contracted malaria, he credits his time in Africa as “essential” to his compositional process.

Drumming, written directly after his studies with Mr. Alorwoyie in 1970-1971, is an example of one piece that arose directly from Reich’s travels to Ghana.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in d minor  

Mahler was serious about taking time away from the bustle of everyday life to focus on composition. In fact, when he visited the idyllic retreat in Steinbach, Austria in the summer of 1893 and found his hotel to be too noisy still, he built his own lakeside composing hut.

It was at the Steinbach hut (Mahler went on to build two more) that the composer wrote his second symphony and drafted most of his third. You can visit the huts today, or take a virtual tour via YouTube (bonus points if you can speak Dutch!)  

One of Mahler's composing huts in Maiernigg, Austria.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Britten: The Prince of the Pagodas

Britten was in his mid-forties when he traveled for five months in Asia in 1955-6 with his partner, tenor Peter Pears. Together they sought out traditional dance, music and drama, including Japanese theatre and Balinese gamelan music.

The influence of gamelan music can be heard throughout Britten’s 1956 ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. The composer created such musical effects through the use of Balinese scales and tunings, percussion-centric instrumentation and layered melodies.

In the scene above, we see the heroine, Rose, escaping the curse of her evil sister by fleeing to the magical land of the pagodas. There she finds her betrothed Prince, who was transformed into a salamander by her sister’s curse and appears onstage to Britten’s simulated gamelan effects.

Gustav Holst: Beni Mora

Ah, the turn of the 20th century, when parents gave morphine-laden syrups to teething babies and arsenic and mercury were used to treat cases of syphilis. Perhaps fortunately for Gustav Holst, uncommon medical treatments (at least by today’s standards) influenced his musical life more than once.

Sick with asthma since childhood, doctors suggested Holst take up the trombone, which would prove to be useful to the composer in his early career. In 1908, still suffering from asthma and depression, Holst was advised by doctors to take a holiday in the warm climate of Algeria. While there, the quick-to-bore composer soon found a bike and was trekking across the Algerian Sahara desert.

While Holst’s cycling journey may not have cured his asthmatic issues, it was certainly fruitful for his creative spirit. Captivated by the belly dancers of Ouled Naïl and traditional Arab folksong, Holst left the experience inspired to write the orchestral suite Beni Mora. The constant repetition of one theme inspired by Arab folk music gave audience members an early glimpse of minimalism, and caused several to hiss in disapproval during the work’s London premiere in 1912.

Antonín Dvořák: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 (“The American”)

Three great works came from Antonín Dvořák’s three-year stay in the United States from 1892 to 1895, including his Symphony No. 9 From the New World, Op. 95, the String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97. It was the String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96, though, that came to him almost effortlessly. 

The Czech composer, then working at the newly-formed National Conservatory of Music in New York, took several months to vacation in rural Iowa. The tiny town of Spillville, settled by Bohemians, was a draw for the homesick Dvořák.

After a 12-year hiatus from composing string quartets, what became known as Dvořák's "American" Quartet came spilling out so fast that the composer scribbled a line of gratitude to God at the end of his first draft. 

Dvořák was keenly aware of both the African American and Native American music traditions, both of which influenced the composer's writing during his stay in the United States. In a letter to a friend in 1893, he asserted as much: "God be praised, I am in good health and am working well and I know that, as for my new symphony, the F major string quartet and the quintet (composed here in Spillville)-- I should never have written these works 'just so' if I hadn't seen America." 

While many works in the vein are simply inspired by the beauty of new surroundings, it’s worth noting that some of these works may be considered examples of Orientalism. In his writings on the subject, Edward Said urges readers to consider issues like social power structures and colonialist history when Western (i.e. European or North American) artists represent Eastern (i.e. South Asian, East Asian and Middle Eastern) cultures through their work. Said argues that, conscious or not on behalf of the artist, these works can perpetuate cultural stereotypes and the notion of the West as more developed, rational and ultimately superior. You can read more on the topic here.

Tags: