A Musical Journey, Part II: Traveling the World Via MusicNov 21, 2021 06:48PM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE
What if you could take a stroll down a bustling street in Paris, gaze upward at Prague’s Vyšehrad Castle from the Vltava River, cruise the Mediterranean with ports of call in Palermo, Tunis, and Valencia, and spend a relaxing evening in the gardens of the Alhambra in Spain—all within the span of about an hour? Physically preposterous, yes, but with a little help from your imagination (and your music app), you can embark on this enticing tour by cueing up the following musical works:
An American in Paris by George Gershwin (1928)
Vltava (from My Homeland) by Bedřich Smetana (1874)
Escales (Ports of Call) by Jacques Ibert (1922)
En el Generalife (from Nights in the Gardens of Spain) by Manuel de Falla (1915)
In my previous Stay Tuned column (September/October 2021) I described a vicarious trip to Venice via the music of Mendelssohn’s gondola songs, and how inspiration derived from specific places helped point composers in the direction of so-called “program music” during the 19th century. The plethora of programmatic compositions that emerged during the Romantic era was a trend that Mendelssohn helped develop with his travel-inspired musical works, and which other composers followed.
In the diverse selection of pieces listed here, listeners can observe some of the approaches composers have taken over the past two centuries when writing works inspired by places. At the top of the list is Gershwin’s tone poem, which he described as “a series of impressions musically expressed” after his visit to Paris during the Roaring Twenties. More specifically, he noted, “My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.”
Those street noises include actual taxi horns, which Gershwin hand-picked and brought back to the U.S. for use in the 1928 New York premiere. The horns are famously heard during the work’s brisk opening moments, where they inject humorously dissonant notes of realism into the score. Later, the music shifts to an American blues style to reflect the visitor’s homesickness, expressing with a subjective, romantic approach the inner feelings of loneliness in contrast with the ebullient, outward experience of the Parisian spectacle.
No such ambivalence is found in Smetana’s symphonic poem Vltava (Die Moldau in German), named after the river that flows through southern and central Bohemia. It’s an unabashedly nationalistic work, written by the so-called “father of Czech music,” that idealizes the land, legends, and people of the region. The music depicts the river and the various scenes that the flowing water passes by in the countryside, and reaches its climax as the river flows past historic Vyšehrad. This kind of nationalist subtext, wherein a composer elevates the homeland, often with political implications, informs many works from the Romantic period and beyond— including Sibelius’ Finlandia, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the Chinese Yellow River Piano Concerto, and even the polonaises and mazurkas of Chopin.
The nationalistic approach contrasts with that of Ibert’s Escales, with its emphasis on exoticism as the French composer evokes foreign places through stereotyped musical characterizations. In this case, Ibert did not have to rely solely on his imagination, as other composers have done in similar works, but rather related the impressions from his own travels with his wife on their honeymoon. Their arrival in Palermo is signaled by a tarantella, in Tunisia a snake charmer offers a plaintive tune on the oboe, and in Valencia familiar Spanish folk-music motifs abound in what the composer describes as music of “strongly marked Iberian character.” These entertaining musical postcards are a far cry from the romantic earnestness of Smetana and seem to reflect the more superficial ways in which many tourists experience their visits to foreign lands.
For the last piece we remain in Spain, but this time with a Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla. The first movement of his “symphonic impressions” for piano and orchestra entitled Nights in the Gardens of Spain transports listeners to the gardens of the Generalife in the Alhambra of Granada. Like Escales, it’s another exotic-sounding early 20th-century piece. The exotic element may be linked to the palace’s ornate designs and Islamic heritage, as well as the jasmine-scented gardens, yet at the same time it is a “homegrown” piece written by a native composer using elements from popular Andalusian music. As with Ibert, there is little of the overt nationalism of Smetana, but rather “evocations of sound,” in the composer’s own words, yielding melancholy and mystery—a beautiful musical work to complete any day.
If you have occasion to listen to this playlist, encounter any other music inspired by a certain place, or can recall other such works you already enjoy, consider asking yourself these questions: What were the composers’ intentions and points of view for their works? How does the music relate to any nonmusical, programmatic elements? And, most importantly, how and why does the music succeed or fail to move you?
Pianist, instructor, and musicologist Erik Entwistle received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a postgraduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis and his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel Island.