15 composers who travelled the world

The great composers inspired by wanderlust

15 Travelling Composers (David Lyttleton)

Musicians have always travelled. It goes with the territory. But familiar as we might be with the wandering minstrel, strolling player, peripatetic music teacher, busker or touring band, composers are different as they have to sit still in order to write. Without an instrument, they have no excuse to travel except for holiday or escape.


Some composers travel, as Steve Reich says, not physically but ‘in the mind’. Bach, for instance, ventured nowhere distant but absorbed foreign styles by studying scores. His kind are not represented here, nor are those fugitive composers who became forced emigrants.

Our focus is on those who for inspiration have journeyed to exotic locations and distilled the experience into new works. We highlight those who have risked the physical dangers of travel to abandon themselves to the sensations of a fresh environment. All composers need an impetus to fill the blank page. The following do it out of Wanderlust…

1. FelixMendelssohn: Scotland

Classical composers wrote idealised foreign-sounding music from their imagination. Think of Mozart and the Turks. Romantics like Mendelssohn, however, prioritised actual experience in the creative process. Books, paintings and nature were the main sources of inspiration. Most went south to the ruins of antiquity, but 19-year-old Felix, at Goethe’s suggestion, went north on a gap-year jaunt to Scotland and into the wild Celtic culture beyond the Roman wall (his mum made him visit Sir Walter Scott, whose novels she loved). He crossed the Highlands, bathed in waterfalls, sketched mountains, suffered bagpipes and threw up on the Hebridean swell. Despite the queasiness, Fingal’s Cave came to him with clarity enough to notate and send home in a letter to sister Fanny.

2. Liszt: The South

The 22-year-old romantic Franz Liszt, inspired by Goethe’s coming-of-age novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, travelled south with his girlfriend. They read, saw sights and visited art galleries, as he records in the movements of his three piano suites, the Années de pèlerinage, which pass like holiday snapshots. In Switzerland they read Byron (each movement begins with a quote), visited Lake Wallenstadt and William Tell’s chapel, experienced a storm, heard the bells of Geneva and got homesick. In Italy they read Petrarch sonnets, saw Raphael’s paintings and Michelangelo’s sculptures, heard gondolier songs and danced the tarantella.

3. Maxwell Davies: The Antartic

In 1999, Peter Maxwell Davies, aged 66, went to the South Pole, commissioned by the British Antarctic Survey to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica. Unlike RVW, who had ventured no further than his living room, Max subjected himself to the most hostile terrain on the planet to re-create the strange sounds he heard in the cracking ice, thundering avalanches and frozen wind. For his Symphony No. 8, ‘Antarctic’, he requires the percussionist to play the biscuit-tin-with-broken-glass, scaffolding pipes, football rattle and plastic-soapdish-scraped-on-a-gong to reproduce the ‘quasi-electronic howl’ he heard.

4. Glenn Gould: The Arctic

As a pianist, Glenn Gould travelled much. When he retired from concert-giving in 1965, he turned composer, though only wrote two works – a string quartet and the ‘oral tone poem’ The Idea of North, a composition in which five interviewees, taped separately but meshed simultaneously in vocal counterpoint, talk about Arctic life. He’d set his heart on a journey into the snowy wastes. In fact he reached only the railway terminus on the Hudson Bay, but at least ahead of him was nothing but tundra. Leonard Bernstein concluded he was confronting his demons after a lifetime of paranoia about cold hands and going out in multiple hats, coats and gloves.

5. Britten: The Far East

In 1955, Benjamin Britten and his lover, the tenor Peters Pears, both in their forties, spent half a year in the Far East. They gave recitals and went sightseeing. Benjy wrote to a young friend enthusing about wildlife and oriental orchestras, like the Japanese Gagaku and Balinese Gamelan, which were played in by young costumed chaps. Flute-and-drum Gagaku music came out in Britten’s Church Parable Curlew River eight years later, but he re-created the Gamelan as soon as he was back in Blighty, using vibes, xylophones and other tuned percussion in the Prince of the Pagodas ballet.

6. Messiaen: Utah

Olivier Messiaen and his wife visited Bryce Canyon, Utah, in 1972 after seeing it in his picture book, Marvels of the World. It is barren, inhospitable and majestic, a more forbidding, less well visited, cousin of the Grand Canyon. Messiaen was transfixed by the shades of red in the rock, chromaticism in raw nature. He recorded local birds and realised both sight and sound in his epic orchestral work Des Canyons aux Etoiles, commissioned by the benefactress Alice Tully for the American Bicentenary in 1976. The locals were so impressed they named a peak after him.

7. Elgar: Italy

By 1903, Edward Elgar was doing well enough to afford a winter holiday for his wife and himself. They went to fashionable Alassio on the Italian Riviera and walked in the hills enjoying streams and flowers against a backdrop both of snow-capped mountains and the blue Mediterranean. He daydreamed of ancient civilisations and mused on the passage of time as he watched shepherds among the ruins. ‘Then I woke up,’ he said, ‘and found I’d composed an overture. The rest was merely writing it down.’ In the South (Alassio) was premiered in 1904 at Covent Garden. It was a good year for Elgar. The King knighted him, the Athenaeum accepted him and Birmingham University honoured him. A winter in the warm south was his due, dammit.

8. Holst: Algeria

In 1908, on medical advice as a remedy for asthma, Gustav Holst went to Algeria, hired a bike and rode off into the Atlas Mountains. He was captivated by the belly dancers of the Ouled Naïl tribe and Berber musicians whose music haunted him. Holst forgot his medical complaint and gave in to the muse to compose the Beni Mora suite which uses a Berber busker’s theme, repeated 163 times. The London audience hissed – it was not what they’d expected of a musical travelogue, and Holst’s asthma returned. Vaughan Williams said he should have played it in Paris and his reputation would have been made.

9. Steve Reich: Ghana

Steve Reich headed to Ghana in 1970 as a reckless 34-year-old percussionist who caught malaria and nearly died in separate swimming and motorcycling accidents. ‘Others went to India,’ he said, ‘physically or in the head. But I was a drummer.’ He studied with a master percussionist of the Ewe tribe and wrote Drumming, ‘minimalism’s first masterpiece’, after returning to the US. Having absorbed an ancient tradition, he asked what his own was. Africa, he said, helped him find himself.

10. Philip Glass: India

Philip Glass went to India in 1966 after working with sitar player Ravi Shankar in Paris. He’d become transfixed by the repetitions of Indian music, and destroyed his old serialist and traditional western scores. In India, he met Tibetan refugees and, later, the Dalai Lama and began his lifelong support for their independence. The effects of the trip came out most in his politics, but it eventually led to his 1979 Gandhi opera Satyagraha.

11. Milhaud: Brazil

Darius Milhaud had arthritis in his twenties and failed his French Army medical. Tant pis, and all that. So while others fought the First World War, he explored Brazil. The seamy, sensual heat of the Amazon contributed to L’homme et son désir and Rio street life to the surreal ballet Le boeuf sur le toit, where dancers moved in slow-motion to Milhaud’s tangos. Later, he also visited Harlem in New York – his impressions of America came out in the opera Christophe Colombe, a hit in Berlin in 1930.

12. Henze: Kenya

Hans Werner Henze severed himself from his past after World War II, living in Italy and refusing even to speak German. He took holidays on Lamu Island off the Kenyan coast, strolled among the dunes and admired the handiwork of the Arab carpenters who traded by sailing dhow along the East coast of Africa. The flavours, the heat and the boyish fisherman melodies came out in The Six Songs from the Arabian.

13. Swayne: Gambia

As composer-in-residence for the London Borough of Hounslow and acknowledging its large African population, Giles Swayne visited Senegal and The Gambia in 1981. His tapes of the Jola tribe are in the British Library Sound Archive. African music emerges in his a capella choral work CRY for 28 amplified singers, premiered by the BBC Singers at the Proms in 1980. That was pre-Africa, of course – the trip confirmed what he had already learnt, but gave him a new understanding of music’s role within society. He married a Ghanaian and returned to live in his wife’s village for five years during the 1990s.

14. Fanshwaye: The Nile

David Fanshawe wanted to be an explorer. After studying at the Royal College of Music in the 1960s, he travelled up the Nile recording musicians as he went. He used some of the tapes in his 1972 African Sanctus, which was a worldwide sensation. The rest he stored in his garage with hundreds of others made on subsequent ethnomusicological journeys, which at his death in 2010 were still waiting to be listened to and catalogued.

15. Tippett: Senegal

Sir Michael Tippett died travelling – he was in Sweden at the age of 93. During his life he often had exotic holidays, relishing the risks and the stimulation. Mexico came out in The Mask of Time, the West Indies in New Year. At 85, he enjoyed Senegal, coming upon Lake Retba, or Le lac Rose, whose algae glows pink in the sunlight. He said he felt a surge and knew a new work was born. Complete with rototom rhythms, The Rose Lake would, he announced, be his last work. He was too blind to finish writing it and used an amanuensis, whom he told to write ‘plop’ above the final staccato quaver low in the brass, retaining his sense of humour to the last. His tribute has helped the lake towards a UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.

Rick Jones

Illustration: David Lyttleton


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