Composers who Traveled


Pretty much every composer hit the road in Europe over the past few centuries – even if travel proved difficult. Early on, they visited royal courts, in hopes of finding favor (and income). Later, when travel got easier, composers went on sight-seeing trips, many of those journeys translating into musical postcards. In this Active Minds program, we'll sample the works of such hearty travelers as Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and others, listening to their music, as it captured the sights and sounds of Tunisia, Italy, the Swiss Alps, Egypt and other picturesque locales. No passport required.


Today, we take travel for granted. Hop in the car and take a leisurely drive. Purchase a bus, train or plane ticket and read a book along the way. Go for an ocean cruise and be treated like royalty. For itinerant musicians and composers back in the old days, however, travel was a grueling but necessary way of life. The roads were bumpy, sometimes washed out by rain. Travelers on horseback were often robbed by thieves who lay in wait. Carriages were susceptible to break-downs (Mozart's father received a severely injured leg when a wheel came off). Naturally, trips took days or weeks instead of hours. And yet, nearly every composer set out for nearby cities or far-away countries. Why? For a variety of reasons. During the Medieval period, troubadours and minstrels earned their living by traveling from town to town entertaining folks in the streets and royals in their palaces. Handel visited Italy to catch up on the latest musical developments – including a new thing called opera, which then took him to London for the opera-craving Brits. Bach reportedly walked hundreds of miles to here the great Buxtehude play the organ. Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and so many others in the 19th Century escaped to the countryside to refresh their senses and, often as not, to find inspiration in the beauty of Nature. Numerous composers headed to the warmth of Italy during wintertime – there to be enchanted by the melodies in the streets and taverns. Mendelssohn not only wrote music based on the places he visited, but made drawings and paintings of those sites, while his Symphonies magically captured the sounds and aromas of Scotland and Italy. Franz Liszt spent years in “pilgrimage,” as he described it, to pay penitence after a collapsed love affair, recounting his adventures in a series of piano pieces. Tchaikovsky, too, left his home in order to free himself from a disastrous marriage. Leaving Russia, he traveled to Switzerland, where he got inspired to write a magnificent Violin Concerto. And he spent time in Italy, producing his beloved Capriccio Italien and the string sextet he titled Souvenir of Florence. When the 20th Century approached, and travel became easier through the comforts of a steam locomotive, composers were able to visit far-off destinations. Travel on water also was found to be appealing. Camille Saint-Saens enjoyed his holidays in Africa, sailing down the Nile on several occasions. Jacques Ibert and his bride took a long Mediterranean honeymoon cruise, leading to the creation of his charming orchestral suite, Ports of Call. Wagner wrote The Flying Dutchman after experiencing a harrowing journey aboard a storm-tossed ship in the North Sea. There were so many others who traveled: Milhaud to Brazil, Gottschalk to the Caribbean tropics, Copland and Gershwin to Havana – and imagine English composer Frederick Delius delighting in the orange groves of Florida!

Exploration Questions

  • How did the Troubadours of the Medieval era influence the development of secular music and the evolution of musical instruments?
  • Where did Brahms get the idea for that dramatic horn solo in the finale of his Symphony No. 1?
  • Why did Richard Strauss run into legal troubles with his orchestral work,  Aus Italien (“In Italy”)?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do you think traveling composers of the Baroque and Classical period refrained from writing music that would capture the sights they encountered?
  • Which of your favorite “musical post cards” best captures the destination being depicted?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Schonberg, Harold C. The Lives of the Great Composers. W.W. Norton & Company. 1997. 656 pages. An authoritative and thoroughly readable survey of the great music-makers, from Monteverdi to Carter and Glass – a nice way to gain familiarity with composers and their travels.
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  • Steen, Michael. The Lives and Times of the Great Composers. Oxford University Press. 2004. 992 pages. Here is another enjoyable collection of biographies – this time covering 37 composers, skipping the early masters and contemporary names.
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