Classical Music Inspired by Travel

Updated on February 25, 2020
Frances Metcalfe profile image

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four and is a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.


Humans have always loved to travel. If they hadn't, humans would not be a global species. Humans have ventured out on foot, dug out canoes, and woven rafts. They've built sturdier ships to cross oceans and chuffed through the countryside in the age of steam before conquering the skies. Humanity's nomadic nature has inspired many great composers.

Great Composer's Inspired by Transportation

  • Gustav Mahler
  • John Adams
  • Arthur Honegger
  • Jan Sandstrom
  • Maurice Ravel
  • Jacques Offenbach

Read about these composers' visions of travel in the paragraphs below. All of these pieces are based on forms of transport including, boats, bikes, locomotives, aeroplanes and, of course, feet.

Gustav Mahler in 1892
Gustav Mahler in 1892 | Source

Gustav Mahler: Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen

This tortured Mahlerian song cycle takes the listener on a journey of shot silk, woven with light and very dark shades indeed.

Mahler's trademark twisting and turning, the false joviality of lederhosen-clad slapping-thigh dances switching to the black dog of despair at the flick of a switch., Mahler scratches venom into his scores with a poisoned nib. Life has bitterness at its core, you can hear him say, with only brief flashes of blinding light.

The cycle describes how a young man is on the losing end of love, another has captured his desired's heart. There are four songs in all, making for a symphonic feel to the work, and indeed he did use the material in his first symphony.

The first, "Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht" (When My Sweetheart Has Her Wedding) follows the protagonist along his journey, trying to find comfort in nature. Bird calls are scattered throughout the movement but nothing lifts his spirits and he is left in despair.

In the second song "Ging heut' morgens über Feld" (I Went Out This Morning Through the Fields), the young man attempts to cheer himself up with a walk in the countryside, but his initial good temper is overtaken by unhappiness at recalling his lost love. Mahler, who loved to include folk tunes and does so here, captures the outdoors with the yodelling of a shepherd in the distance.

The third song turns nasty. "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" ( I Have a Glowing Knife). The spurned lover imagines stabbing his former girlfriend in the heart. It's pure bitterness, the brass section adopts the role of aggressor venting spleen as the devil possesses his own heart.

The final song is preoccupied with death. "Die Zwei Blau Augen" (The Two Blue Eyes) accompanies the would-be lover to the linden tree, where he tries to find solace. Traditionally the tree is associated with death, but if you happened to miss the metaphor, Mahler rolls in the most sinister of funeral marches, for it is Frère Jacques, flipped from a happy and familiar children's round to the sceptre of the grim reaper. Jacques is inviting death, no sonnez le Latina here, it's the funereal toll of the bell.

This is one of Mahler's earliest works, written between 1883 and 1885, and the diabolical remained a constant throughout his compositional style, always ready to make his satanic appearance at any given moment.

As a young boy Mahler witnessed a seriously violent incident between his parents at home, and running out into the street he heard the military band practising an upbeat march at the barracks next door. No wonder he could never separate the threatening with the elated.

John Adams 1947 -
John Adams 1947 - | Source

John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine

The steady, steady beat, the pulsing of the clarinets and synthesizers, pushes the ride along from the word go. You want to nod to it, up and down, up and down.

Although the beat is incessant and unchanging, you can't pin it down but it remains your only reference.

Ask yourself 'How many beats are there actually in a bar? Can I feel the one, two, three, four of a march, or the one-two-three, one-two-three pendulum swing of the Viennese waltz? No. The only fixed point is the beat itself. The ostinato. Rigid, like the woodblock that plays it.

The orchestration is ever changing like the scenery you're passing, but you're in familiar landscape, You feel safe, yet exhilarated, protected, as if on a stable magnetic rail. No swaying due to high winds here. Just don't venture outside the pod.

It's a metronome, yet it's free. Freedom to take in the view without worrying about having to change gear. Your transport is capable of driving itself at a constant high speed.

Cruise control.

Prepare to be thrilled.

Enjoy the ride.

Adams Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Arthur Honegger 1892-1955
Arthur Honegger 1892-1955 | Source

Arthur Honegger: Pacific 231

It's menacing, driven relentlessly. A behemoth shuddering along, smoke belching, a machine of revolution charging forward into a landscape changing from desperate pastoral to grimy industrial, a forced journey screeching its iron way and will.

Capturing the dirt and soot of an unstoppable journey, Honneger's Pacific 231 railroads anything in its tracks, the carriages stampeding like bulls focused on the intention to display its might to anyone who dares to oppose. Stand by and watch it lunge past in terror of the coming unknown.

In 1949 Jean Mistry put together a film of the locomotive, adapting his screenplay to the music.1

If you'd like to listen to a playlist of songs about trains, including R&B, country and rock click here.

Honegger was a great lover of trains. The 2-3-1 refers to the arrangement of the wheels- two axle pilot wheel, three axle driving wheels and one axle trailing wheels, according to the French system of counting axles as opposed to wheel on their locomotives.

What mode of transport do you prefer?

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Jan Sandström: A Motorbike Odyssey

It's totally mad. And that's why it works. Maybe it could only be written for a trombonist to bring off this raucous concerto complete with stage antics. It's magnificent.

It was written in between 1988 and 1989 for the celebrated trombonist Christian Lindberg who made suggestions to Sandström about what could be included in the work. As Lindberg is a keen globetrotter, it was decided he could represent a modern Odysseus riding about the world on a motorbike. Why not?

It's based on a series of travelogues. The wild introduction starts in Odysseus's homeland, before the trombone maps out the world and lands in The Everglades. Watch out for the crocodiles and an ostentious show of producing chords on an instrument normally associated with playing one note at a time.

Next comes a motorbike race in Provence ( I suppose it was inevitable) and a cycle ride into the mountains, a reverent harmonious lull, trying not to disturb a Catholic procession in through the mediaevil village of Grimaud. Then a blaze on to the antipodes.

The cadenza is based the sound of the digeridoo, one of the suggestions Christian Lindberg put forward after a trip he made to Australia. Finally all parts of the journey are relived.2

Clever doesn't begin to describe this brazen work. I could use all manner of adjectives here. It's as if the motorbike inhabits the trombone's slide pushing it to the outer limits of its technical capabilities. Sandström has created a masterpiece of electrifying brilliance to showcase Lindberg's dazzling artistry. The noises the trombonist is called on to produce is quite mind-boggling, all the recognisable roars and snorts of the exhaust are there, the thrill of zooming round tight corners and the sheer craziness of it all.

Lindberg is arguably the greatest trombonist of all time. The video is just 11 minutes of flamboyant swashbuckling entertainment, Lindberg clad in motorbike leathers,waves his slide about as he zooms through the countryside.Even the conductor dons a helmet to complete the hilarity. Everyone including the orchestra and captivated audience has an absolute ball.

So press the play button, jump on the back seat and experience the exhilaration of adrenalin-filled danger that comes with the territory of the open throttle.

There is a longer version of the concerto of around 25 minutes if you fancy an even longer daredevil ride!

Maurice Ravel 1875-1937
Maurice Ravel 1875-1937 | Source

Ravel: Mirroirs, Une Barque Sur l'Océan

In filigree free flowing undulation the arpeggiated bass washes alongside the boat, whispering spray against the ear.

It's typical Ravel, painting a picture on the black and white keys of the piano, droplets glinting in the sun, prism-fulls of refracted light dazzling in the upper pitches of the piano as the sea swells.

Ravel never quite throws you overboard as the boat ventures into open water, but there's more than enough see-sawing of the ocean to excite the heart. You may need to steady yourself with the clasp of a hand on the side, tasting the saltiness as the water and the music becomes more agitated.

To read more about classical music inspired by mirrors click here.

The boat calms down swishing back into harbour. All is well, an excursion out just far enough to sea to stimulate, shimmeringly captured by a master of impressionism.

Jacques Offenbach 1819-1880
Jacques Offenbach 1819-1880 | Source

Offenbach: Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann

Barcarolle refers to the tunes gondoliers sang as they punted their passengers along the canals of Venice (barc meaning boat). The gondolas are always black, like the hackneys cabs in London.

The music rolls back and forth with the lapping waves of the Venetian lagoons, unhurried and a little bit balmy, seductive even. But Venice is a city of backwaters where unpleasant deeds have a nasty habit of taking place, out of sight, while a gondolier punts blindly past .

The barcarolle "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amore" (Beautiful Night, o Night of Love) form Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann is for soprano and mezzo soprano. The soprano, the courtesan Giulietta, is accompanied by Hoffmann himself in the guise of his poetic muse, Nicklausse. Hoffmann is under the impression that Giulietta loves him, just as he loves her. Giulietta, on the other hand, is in collusion with a Captain Dapertutto who has offered to give her a diamond for stealing Hoffmann's reflection.3

The mirror is of course the water, but it also represents the opposite side, and illusion, love and duplicity. Offenbach's simple and seemingly innocent little song is a warning not to accept face value. Can anything be that straightfoward? Giulietta is after all, a lady of the night, in it for the money. Pretence, seduction and deception is the name of the game.

And so the aria is clad in uncomplicated harmonies, the false sense of security, the belief that love is reciprocated and all is well, while the bass line sinks down to dredge the murky waters of the proverbial canal.

Rossini was also reacting against the highly chromatic music of Wagner by writing this very simple barcarolle - when you listen to the opening of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde it's impossible to put your finger on what key it's in.

Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872-1958
Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872-1958 | Source

Vaughan Williams: A Vision of Aeroplanes

The inspiration for this motet comes from chapter one of Ezekiel. The chorus is accompanied by the organ, but by no means secondary to the choir.

The words are heady. Ezekiel is describing visions - wheels within wheels - thought to be some sort of gyroscopic spiritual instrument. Some have attributed Ezekiel's vision to the appearance of an aeroplane: "I looked, and behold, a whirlwind came out of the North, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself...I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of the great waters, as the voice of the Almighty".

Whether you buy into this explanation or not, it is this interpretation

Vaughan Williams is tapping into when he hands over controlled freedom to the organist, its luxuriant flight of fancy reeling through the hall over the heads of the choir and audience.4

The first section is a tour de force for the organ part, taking off from the runway and soaring skywards before the choir enters, unsettled and restless. The second part, marked alla marcia has little of the traditional march about it, still feeling its perturbed way through the supernatural phantasm.

There is a definite mystical atmosphere, in part created by the high soprano writing and swirling chromaticism, the dynamics expanding and receding. As the vision fades out of sight, the music wanes to silence.

If you enjoyed this article why not read some others? Just click on the titles below:

Classical Music Inspired by Food and Drink

Classical Music Inspired by the Earth

Classical Music Inspired by the Solar System


1 Wikipedia France

2 jansandströ

3 France Musique

4 The Restored Church of God

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


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    • Frances Metcalfe profile imageAUTHOR

      Frances Metcalfe 

      2 years ago from The Limousin, France

      Thanks Flourish. I had a gas writing this article, particularly about the Motorbike Odyssey and the Mahler, which I played with an amateur orchestra. We were very naughty and called it Songs of a Travelling Salesman, but then musicians are an irreverent bunch.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      2 years ago from USA

      The way you describe these works is truly inspired. I was really impacted by Mahler’s story.


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