As Memorial Day approaches, so too comes the season of vacations and summer travels, occasions to be savored as much in the journeys as in the destinations. Music has a special ability to evoke landscapes of all kinds while also embodying the sense of a journey in its myriad ways of moving through time. What better way, then, to help us get in the mood of savoring our own movements through the beautiful landscapes available to us in the coming season than a playlist of classical pieces and songs on the theme of Summer, Travel, and Vacation Vistas?
Here are some of my favorite works from across the repertoire of classical music, which bring those themes most vividly to life in my imagination.
Dvořák on the plains
We begin with one of my all-time favorite string quartets, Antonin Dvořák’s String Quartet #12, the ‘American,’ which the great Czech romantic composed while on his own summer vacation in 1893 in Spillville, Iowa!
Copland on the prairie
The first composer to fully establish the American sound in classical music – a sound characterized by a majestic sense of space and openness, both literally in the music's technical construction, and metaphorically as a vision of America’s ethos and aspiration to be a truly open culture – was Aaron Copland. His 1937 orchestral piece ‘Prairie Journal’ (aka ‘Music for Radio’) is a rhythmically exciting and expansive trip across the same landscape that won Dvorak’s heart. And, of course, no American road trip with Copland would be complete without his most popular music celebrating the American spirit, ‘Appalachian Spring.’
Still’s musical travels
Besides marveling at great landscapes, experiencing and participating in cultural exchange is another one of the great joys of travel. One of the greatest American composers most keenly interested in creating cultural exchange through his music in the mid-20th-century was William Grant Still. His series of orchestral suites, collectively called ‘The American Scene,’ celebrate both the landscapes and the cultural milieus of several of this country’s distinct regions, using the kind of musical alchemy for which Still is justly famous.
Riding shotgun with John Adams
Continuing in the American tradition, one of John Adams’ most popular minimalist masterpieces is all about the excitement of the open road: his 1986 fanfare for orchestra ‘A Short Ride in a Fast Machine.’
Along the English road with Ralph
Heading across the pond, we remind ourselves that our linguistic brethren have their own venerable traditions of travel which celebrate their (smaller but still infinitely charming) landscapes just as beautifully as we do ours. Ralph Vaughan Williams famously idealized the Great British culture of walking all over that misty green island’s rolling hills with his 1904 song cycle on poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Songs of Travel.’
Crosscurrents in the Southeast with Gershwin and
Back to one more American region before heading to Europe. George Gershwin is rightly beloved for, among other things, his ingenious and seamless synthesis of popular jazz and classical forms of expression. That amazing eclectic spirit shines through beautifully in Randall Goosby’s recent recordings of brilliant violin arrangements of famous songs from Gershwin’s great opera about Southern American life in a fictional tenement in Charleston, SC, ‘Porgy and Bess.’ We follow those with a lazy river trip in central Florida, getting a little modernist with Marion Bauer’s 1913 tone poem for violin and piano ‘Up the Ocklawaha.’
Wandering with Schubert
Although they usually came to it with much more broodiness, the German romantics also had a special fondness for traveling, especially through wilds and woodlands. So, if wandering in search of complete expressive freedom is what summer vacation means to you, you’re in good company with Franz Schubert’s piano fantasy ‘Der Wanderer,’ as well as the cheerful woodland walks in the opening lieder (voice-and-piano songs) of his most famous song cycle ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ (The Fair Miller-Maid).
The Great Outdoors with the Orchestral Masters
And now that we’re on the continent, let’s take an orchestral version the Grand Tour, beginning in Bohemia with Bedrich Smetana’s tone poem of a journey along The Moldau River: ‘Vltava, from Ma Vlast.’ Moving a bit east, it’s Ludwig van Beethoven’s Austrian country romp, his ‘Symphony #6: The Pastorale.’ Even further east, we enjoy a hot and lugubrious Tuscan summer with Antonio Vivaldi’s Summer Concerto from ‘The Four Seasons.’ Taking a boat across the Mediterranean we come to Luxor, Egypt, Camille Saint-Saens' favorite vacation destination, where (and under whose musical influence) he composed his Piano Concerto #5, ‘The Egyptian.’ And lastly, we hop back over to the British Isles for Felix Mendelssohn’s orchestral description of a great tourist attraction in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, the ‘Fingall’s Cave’ or ‘Hebrides Overture.’
Back home to a new perspective with Jennifer Higdon
Home, sweet home, in 21st-century style we come with Jennifer Higdon’s symphonic tribute to America’s National Parks, commissioned for the Grand Teton Music Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2011; ‘All Things Majestic.’ It’s thrilling and celebratory musical depiction of wondrous vistas and landscapes which America rightly protects and holds dear, and it’s a perfect end to our summer’s musical journeys on the road. Bon voyage, and happy trails!
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