Thursday, March 4, 2010

Romantic Repertoire for the Open Road

To state the obvious: music can be a wonderful reminder of places. During the first year of our marriage, my wife Beth and I visited a book store in Frederick, Maryland, which carried a wonderful selection of LPs. (CDs had been introduced the previous year but weren't widely available.) I purchased a two-record set of Mendelssohn’s first two symphonies and also a two-record set of the other three. To this day, Mendelssohn’s music reminds me of the hills of Maryland, no matter what Scottish, Italian, and other inspirations he brought to his music. I could name several other personal examples of favorite associations, but here are just a few more.

Two less-well known composers are also nice reminders of places---actually of highways. While driving on U.S. 89 (now AZ 89) between Ash Fork and Prescott, AZ, on church-related business, I was listening to public radio and really loved a piece of music. I thought the announcer said something about mountains and the composer was “Dandee.” Since I was driving, I couldn't write down the information and hoped I could recall the name later. Eventually I figured out (I don’t remember how) that the piece was "Symphony on a French Mountain Air" by Vincent d’Indy.

D’Indy is not well known today. He lived from 1851 till 1931 and was a student of Cesar Franck. According to the source he was part of the artistic revival that included Mallarme, Causson, Saint-Saens, Degas, Rodin, Renoir, Franck, Faure, Debussy, and others. D’Indy was also a Wagner admirer (and, unfortunately, was also an anti-Semite). His devotion to tonality was one possible reason d’Indy became less known as the 20th century progressed, but today his music has been newly performed and released on the Chandos label. Other pieces that I enjoy are his “Jour d’ete a la Montagne” and his “Dyptique Mediterraneen,” partly inspired by a scenic train ride.

A few years ago my CD club carried the symphonies of Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817-1890) with the encouragement that this Danish composer wrote in the tradition of Mendelssohn and Schumann. So I bought all four CDs of Gade’s eight symphonies! (I tend to do that kind of thing: if I like one piece by a composer, maybe I’ll like others. That’s why I haven’t yet carved out time to explore Mahler’s symphonies.) Gade actually was Mendelssohn’s assistant conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and became chief conductor when Mendelssohn died. Like d’Indy, Gade is not famous today, but none other than Christopher Hogwood conducted these symphonies, which now remind me of sunny but tedious drives upon Interstate 70 across Indiana and Illinois. That was the highway on which I--tired and very buzzed on Starbucks coffee--first listened to the discs. (His music isn't tedious, and in fact it filled sensate gaps as I traveled the visually familiar but unspectacular countryside.)

U.S. 89 also reminds me of Schumann’s symphonies, but I don’t remember if, as in the case of d’Indy, I heard the first symphony on NPR as I drove, or if something about the music brought me back to that landscape. Unlike these other Romantic composers Schumann is not at all obscure. His 200th birthday, soon after Chopin's, is upcoming, with articles about him promised in music magazines, and John Eliot Gardiner has conducted the symphonies on a recent CD set.

Schumann’s music also reminds me of holiday drives with my wife during the 1980s as we traveled to visit parents. We’d randomly purchased a cheap little cassette called "Brass: 3 Centuries of Golden Sounds" for our road trips. We loved this anthology (on the Allegretto label, now on CD); it's a nice selection of mostly baroque and classical repertoire by Scheidt, Vivaldi, L. and W.A. Mozart, Handel, Haydn, Gabrielli, and others. Schumann’s piece "Konzertstueck for 4 Horns" contrasts stylistically with the older repertoire, but it’s the concluding piece and thus isn’t jarring.

Whenever I play some of this music, I still like to recall that expansive Arizona countryside which I've not seen for several years. What was the name of that composer, and what was the title of that piece, as I approached Bill Williams Mountain to the north? What did the announcer say? Dandee? Just an hour and a half to home.

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