Ear trainers

I’ve been thinking about trains these past few weeks for three reasons. First, it’s the anniversary of the linkage of three important London transport facilities 111 years ago, on 22 June 1907, namely the connection of the London Underground with Charing Cross and Euston Stations; second, the surfacing of my childhood memories of the unforgettable sounds, sights and smells of the explosive whoosh, the majestic metal and the pungent grease of the steam train age, all documented in my train-spotters handbook; and thirdly, a recent incident at London’s Victoria Station. The latter created panic when an icon of that past age – The Flying Scotsman – made a grande-dame entrance and set off the fire alarm with its swirls of whoosh, causing a complete evacuation of the station, and no doubt leaving The Flying Scotsman with a smug smile on its boiler plate.

Recalling that the composer Antonin Dvořák was fascinated by steam locomotives throughout his life (and he wasn’t the only one), I thought that this week we could do a quick aural survey of how the age of the train has been documented in music.

We’ll start in the modern age, with a living composer who has captured so vividly the atmosphere of past times. Michael Daugherty’s Deus ex Machina (8.559635) is a 3-movement piano concerto inspired by trains of the future and the past: Fast Forward, the opening movement, re-creates the machine-like rhythms of modern trains admired by the Italian futurists; Train of Tears recalls Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train; while the finale, Night Steam, evokes O. Winston Link’s historic photographs of steam locomotives rumbling and whistling their way into extinction. Here’s the end of that last movement.

Back now to the infamous 1937 Paris International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life (you can read Wikipedia’s summary of the event on this link). Fifteen composers living in Paris at the time were commissioned to produce piano pieces for the event. Le train hanté (The Haunted Train) (8.572025) by Bohuslav Martinů was among a number of works that reflected the exhibition’s various amusement rides, not the Railway Pavilion that was devoted to rail transport. It’s interesting to note how Martinů injects the flavour of spookiness into his circuit of the ghost train, and the sense of relief in the final chords on emerging back into the daylight of the living.

Set aboard one of the most famous trains of all times, the star-studded 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express was based on the Agatha Christie thriller of the same title. The composer chosen to write the music for the film was Richard Rodney Bennett, who turned out to be an excellent choice. A highly versatile musician, he was as well known for his performances as a pianist, not least in jazz, as for his compositions that contributed to opera, ballet and film (he also wrote the scores for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Far from the Madding Crowd). Here’s how he depicted the Orient Express (8.554577) building up a lilting head of steam.

Next to music by Heitor Villa-Lobos and his Bachianas brasileiras No. 2 (8.557460-62). Written in 1930, it’s a suite depicting aspects of Brazil that the composer would have seen on his travels during the early years of the twentieth century. Its textural richness belies the modest orchestra required, not least in the Toccata O trenzinho do Caipira (The Peasant’s Little Train) that has remained one of Villa-Lobos’ most enduring pieces. The music is a vivid evocation of a steam locomotive with all its audible limitations moving steadily through the ‘backlands’ of the Northeast Region of Brazil, one far removed from the mechanised precision of another train which we’ll hear in a moment.

That other train just mentioned is Pacific 231, Arthur Honegger’s Symphonic Movement No. 1 (8.555974). Written in 1923, few other pieces caught so successfully the mood of the time, and the imagination of musicians and the public alike. As the pulse rate of the train in motion increases, so does the stridency of the orchestration. At length, everything comes together in a hectic tutti, with the brakes applied as the music slows inexorably to its final chord.

Hans Christian Lumbye (1810-1874) is known as the most popular Danish composer of dances of the nineteenth century. He founded his own orchestra in 1840 and wrote some 700 works for the ensemble over the next 30 years. Lumbye’s Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop (8.223743), one of his most popular galops, depicts a trip on the first stretch of railway in Denmark, which was inaugurated on 24 June 1847 and linked the royal city of Copenhagen with the cathedral city of Roskilde, 31 kilometres away. The opening depicts the train waking from its slumber in the marshalling yard and quickly flexing its pistons to achieve a cracking pace. Although there were numerous other composers who painted the steam train in sound, it’s Lumbye’s creation that remains on today’s concert programmes, both in Denmark and beyond.

Finally to a light orchestral miniature by William Hill-Bowen (1916-1964), his Paris Metro (8.570332). Typical of the British, light orchestral style, it may not paint a completely faithful reflection of your average Parisian in strap-hanging mode on a Monday morning, but it serves as a good toe-tapping vehicle to arrive at the end of this week’s musical outing.

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