Intro: The Little Train of Calpeira - Villa-Lobos
Hullo, this is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Mike Burrows. We have just heard Bachianas Brasileiras Number 2, The Little Train of The Calpeira, a postcard-like vignette by the prolific Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa--Lobos. Legend has it, that it was written in the space of a trip on this very train.
Today’s music has to do with a great symbol of logistic power and the power to bring a little freedom into people’s lives, a once-great resource of the state and business in real partnership, heavily subsidized and thus kept within the means of a population’s pockets, whilst also employing hundreds of thousands of people throughout the length and breadth of the country, to maintain a network that drew almost every district, every village, close together, enabled a prompt mail and trade-service and expedite travel to one’s place of work, close links between family members; created a pre-holiday adventure of convenience and speed, and was latterly never appreciated by those who had no need of national systems: the railways.
We all know the people who cause the erection of buffers everywhere and who leave ghosts to stand or wander nowhere: the people who cut and cut at life in a bid for what they call efficiency - that is, low cost to themselves and their few friends, and the chance to make funny or rapine money; the people who create efficiency by destroying effectiveness, or by causing system and equal outcome to vanish into thin air. How clever it is to solve unreal problems by closing things down. By making tough - ie, impossibly stupid - decisions, choosing between unalike things, one creates endless new illogical provisions made logical by continued erosion of what holds us all together, safeguards personal freedoms and prevents dictatorship.
Take a moment to remember what railways are: the excitement of purpose as burdens of material goods and wishes are most durably, powerfully and speedily borne where perhaps the car or coach - or forty-ton juggernaut - isn’t master. Remember how Victorian adults and children could at last break out of the parish-bound existence that destroyed the initiative and individualism of most of our forebears for centuries, and latterly created hellish urban living conditions and inescapable sickness. For once, the needs of trade and the well-being and liberty of our people coincided. Remember how better-paid engineering and administrative skills became a wide-spread opportunity, jobs offering a graduating, steadily incremented salary were created for a multitude, and there need be less sense of toil and aimlessness at any level, given the mission that every person in the system shared, that of keeping a socially developing nation on the move. Let’s hear music that celebrates this spirit: Coronation Scot, by Vivian Ellis, a composer of light music and musicals. This fine piece has not only a good, easily modulatable tune of smooth length and considerable idealism, but also instantly recognizable moments of onomatapoeia. The changes of key and repeated climaxes follow a cycle that conveys sense of ever-changing landscape and of a destination - the excitement of a predestined journey over unfamiliar but easily-crossed terrain by virtue of well-resourced, co-operative system, in fact. The power in hand of a fired-up locomotive is conveyed by brass and percussion in harsh discord, the super-athletic ease of movement humming with constant figuration and a fine melody led by the strings, violins singing like one’s happiness-stimulated nerves, warmth coming from horns and woodwind. The orchestra stands for common purpose - railway-staff and passengers in union, the miles speeding by, our machine a tended servant, our track cleared ahead and points changing smoothly, all happening by numbers.
Sadly, we seem not to have a composer who can do equal justice to modern rail-travel.
Track One: Vivian Ellis: Coronation Scot
British Rail existed long before nationalization, a reliable, integrated strategic service that covered most parts of the country, not a patchwork of fiefdoms embroidered by competing financial sollipsists who owned no track but only rolling-stock, or who didn’t own rolling-stock, but found maintaining track beyond their pockets while charging rolling-stock companies what they felt like charging for the use of it. That the Victorians could build the world’s first national railway with private capital; enable the nation to avail themselves of the service with stable and fair pricing and constant technological innovation, and create and protect jobs in spite of ever-more ergonomic work-practices, companies’ different natures and policies converging in co-operation - once a free-booting period of unwise, even fraudulent speculation was got over - is a reproach to those who know only how to hand subsidized, profiteering or non-existent costs onto the customer and give him an ever-more restricted service in return, year on year.
A film that dealt with the problems of coexistence of public and private on our railways was The Titfield Thunderbolt, one of the most popular Ealing comedies, and made in 1952. Film-attitudes to trade unions apart it is a sensible if quaint take on the contrast between two forms of organization and vested interests. The road-lobby in the form of a coach-company wishes to see the back of a Ministry-doomed branch-line, railway enthusiasts who volunteer to fund and run it don’t, the road lobby stoops to sabotage, destroying the only engine and carriage before the all-important inspection by a man from the Ministry. The Titfield Thunderbolt, an early locomotive is taken from a museum, a retired carriage, the home of a retired engine-driver, is spruced up, and with several mishaps and much public co-operation, the inspection goes well, though gravity and brute muscular strength are both required to assist progress: the payoff being that they travelled almost swiftly enough not to qualify as a light railway; they will have to be more careful in future... Georges Auric, the French composer, one of the famous group, Les Six, wrote often for Ealing Studios, and here, composed a memorable, neo-classical score, though possibly one that owes a shade too much to French folk-music to be entirely idiomatic. Its brusque but quirky style is fittingly motoric, the engine’s every puff and sneeze portrayed, the exhilaration of running at full speed, the excitement of joint-endeavour lending rudimentary machinery wings, a certain blague adding to its smile-worthiness, and somehow, in spite of the French demotic, he caught the spirit of this very English, conflictingly cynical, but soft--headed film.
Let’s hear Titles, The Triumph of The Titfield Thunderbolt and End-titles.
Track Two: The Titfield Thunderbolt Suite - Georges Auric.
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley Radio, and I’m Mike Burrows. Today’s topic is music about railways.
For our next piece, we turn to the great symphonist among The Six, Arthur Honegger. He takes his inspiration from a far grander locomotive than Vivian Ellis’ Coronation Scot - in fact, from an American express, Pacific 231 - for his eponymous symphonic poem of 1923. It is arguable that symphonic form as early as Mozart headed towards prophetic portrayal of mechanical high velocity in its allegro movements, the growth in slow introductions and contrast between quick or aggressive first and slower, more lyrical second subjects during the romantic period giving one the sense of energy pent-up and released, steaming-up and setting out, and of more sentimental thoughts arising during ease of travel, and thus irresistibly giving a full depiction of journey by steam, the development of subjects that had been adumbrated in the introduction a partly fugal working-out at full head of steam having the inherent impatience of that ease and leading to one’s destination. Pacific 231 has the expectancy, almost ghostly in its hollow impersonality, and the beginning slow instability of rhythm settles on a growing pattern punctuated by brass fanfaring and drum, subtlely gathering speed, the woodwind and violins soon beginning to add some air and space, the brass working against that, the music dropping to string ostinato before brass builds up again on its own terms over the teeming notes of speed; the inhumanity is in dissonance and a searching rather than grand theme - the whole ends in a final chord, brass-dominated that is the last word. Do we remember what we saw out of the carriage-windows? Is there the sense of a journey, is the last word a destination? Honegger himself felt that “musically speaking,” he had “composed a grand and varied chorale, interwoven with counterpoint in the manner of JS Bach.” This is music with intellectual muscle, of a mechanistic age, as such, absolute in its own terms. Remember the Fascist boast that Mussolini caused the trains to run on time. The dehumanizing influence of technology was supposed to have superceded sentimentality and the softer emotions for the unsparing, but scientifically rational and therefore preferable, better.
Track Three: Pacific 231 - Arthur Honegger
Track Three: Pacific 231 - Arthur Honegger
When Naples gained its funicular railway, one on which cars run drawn by a cable, it gained possibly its most famous song, taken up the world over as characteristic. The Vesuvius funicular railway opened in 1880, and this occasional piece gained a life of its own; to this day, many have no idea what it is about, but relish its apparent zest. It was quoted in the young Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Aus Italien, as a folksong. Funicula Funiculi, in which a young man invites his girl to accompany him in a trip on the latest public service, was in fact written by an otherwise forgotten composer, Luigi Denza. From the summit, not only can the couple see the fiery crater, they can look outward to see the island of Procida, France and even Spain: or they can look into eachother’s eyes and see love. So hurry!
Track Four: Funiculi Funicula - Luigi Denza
William Blezard’s Battersea Park Suite ends with a short piece Miniature Railway. It could be almost a movement from the orchestral version of the Children’s Corner Suite of Debussy, characterized as it is by an open-air, melodious quality, aided by the composer’s neat orchestral scoring. The clarinet at opening starts us off into a lazy tune; and so things continue, with a stop to pick up further young passengers. The oboe has its moment of sad uncertainty before the ride ends all too soon.
To the Denmark of the mid-19th Century now. Hans Christian Lumbye is often seen as a Danish Strauss. Inspired by Strauss, from the age of twenty-nine, he composed waltzes, polkas, galops and mood-pictures calculated to appeal to fashionable society. From the age of thirty-three, for thirty years, he directed music at the Tivoli Gardens, his orchestra establishing a fine tradition of light music there. The Kobenhavn Steam Railway Galop was written to celebrate the opening of Cobenhavn’s first railway station and Denmark’s first railway.
The Galop describes a short train journey of the pioneer-days from beginning to end, with an array of whistles and percussion, besides the usual orchestral ensemble. The tune is a good one, when travelling, swift, vivacious and light-hearted, giving the lie that in the early days of rail-gloom as to how the human body could stand up to speed was taken seriously. The sound-effects must have seemed riotous when heard first, but are vividly apt and well--matched by the pace of the score from slow start to slow end, with subtle gradations along the way. It is as if the last foot leaves the ground just in time, but no-one wants to set foot on the platform at the end, as the guard shouts that they have arrived!
Track Six: Kobenhavn Steam Railway Galop - HC Lumbye
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was possibly the only American composer to begin in modernism inculcated by Nadia Boulanger in the Paris of the 1920s and regarded as an enfant terrible - his Organ Symphony caused a colleague to say that it was the work of a young man who could now go on to commit murder - to become thoroughly popular for his national music, often based on folksong in a style that is de rigeur in films of the last quarter of a century precisely because its Rooseveltian context is dead - and then track off into serialism, some of which out-barbs Schoenberg, but all of which is fascinating; he was a composer of real integrity, authority and conviction. Through a career of nearly seventy years, his talent as a composer and conductor developed, and he remained what he had always been, a man who concentrated on bettering himself and encouraging others, seen as a liberal, left-wing figure who interested himself in many enlightened causes. He was the man who stated that when non-musicians wrote two words on music, one of them would be wrong, but for the most part, he spared the world his asperity, save when musical expression called for it.Let’s hear his ‘song’ based on the negro ballad about a track-layer and rock-crusher, John Henry, killed in competing against a steam-hammer. A Railroad Ballad For Small Orchestra was revized in 1952. It is conducted by the composer.
Track Seven: John Henry, A Railroad Ballad - Copland
Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-88), was possibly the greatest musical recluse of his generation or even century. His professional name was a pseudonym. A noted piano-virtuoso in an age of virtuosi, he numbered Liszt amongst his admirers but back-pedalled from the limelight to compose some of the most accomplished and complex piano works of his era. Born the son of a piano teacher, Charles Valentin Morhange was brought up in the Marais, the Jewish quarter of a strongly anti-semitic Paris. He became a child-prodigy, attended the Conservatoire, taught by the teachers of Georges Bizet and Cesar Franck, attracted aristocratic Russian patrons, became a private teacher and soloist and lived comfortably on his earnings. Chopin, an equally shy man and not a willing sharer of fame, performed in at least one concert with him, and Alkan's progress towards settled eminence seemed assured. But it was at this time of his greatest fame that his appearances in public became fleeting; he was passed over for a professorship and possibly fathered a love-child on a married lady-admirer; worse than professional disappointment or scandal, he begun to suffer from nervous illness - dread of ill-health. He withdrew into himself, musical composition and the study and translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Towards the end of his life, he reappeared for a series of concerts on behalf of Érard, makers of pianos favoured by many composers; these continued on Mondays and Thursdays until he died.
Reputedly, his death came when reaching down a volume in his cluttered study. As he pulled on it, the high, haphazardly-weighted bookcase in which it stood toppled onto him.
Le Chemin de Fer, of 1844, is a tone-poem for piano, describing a railway journey.
Track Eight: Le Chemin de Fer - Charles Valentin Alkan
Underground railways have their portrayals in music. Most are surprizingly up-beat and cheerful. Our next piece, which dates from 1961, evokes a rather grimmer reality - Subway Jam. Its sinister concrete-jungle rhythms on percussion and brass with interspersed, softer grey tones from woodwind, were intended to accompany a sequence from a film set in New York - Carline’s Something Wild. About this piece there is the inhumanity of scale and an alienation whose ends have been lost in all-powerful mechanical means; it exhibits a harsher, harder-hitting development of Honegger’s impersonal vision and style, perhaps, the sentimental ‘machinism’ left a nightmare. The ‘Sixties were very distant from the ‘Twenties, thanks to the Second World War, the growth in technology, intense urban development and, side by side with wealth, grinding poverty untouched by any social programme to build on gains of the pre-war New Deal. The piece was revized by its composer for concert as the third number of the Suite Music For A Great City (1963-4). The composer? Aaron Copland. It is an example of his gritty, later work. Here it is conducted by Copland himself.
Track Nine: Subway Jam - Music For A Great City - Copland
For our last piece, Charles Williams’ Rhythm on Rails, from 1943, a typical example of orchestral and lyrical finesse from him, and some onomatapeia. Its optimism brings our short journey to a close. This was Classical Break, I’m Mike Burrows, hoping that you have enjoyed the trip and that I’ll have your company again, soon. Mind the doors!
Track Ten: Rhythm on Rails - Charles Williams