Trains in a Classical Mode

Amy X, Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet

Amy X, Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet

Trains provide a nice rhythmic basis for music – the old chuga-chuga sound of a steam train might be replaced now with the smooth humming of electrics, but we can find music where the train meets the tracks.

Arthur Honegger’s 1923 composition, Pacific 231, celebrates a train to our ears, whereas for Honegger it was an experiment in misdirection. As we hear the ‘train’ accelerate, what we are actually experiencing is a set of smaller and smaller note values while, at the same time, the actual tempo is slowing. Despite its modern and experimental qualities, it remains one of Honegger’s most popular works. In 1949, the French director made the film Pacific 231, using Honegger’s music.

Honneger: Pacific 231

“Pacific 231” 1949 movie: Jean Mitry-music: Arthur Honegger original !

Arthur Honegger Credit:

Arthur Honegger

Heitor Villa-Lobos, in his Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2, depicted a train trip through Brazil in the early 20th century. The Bachianas Brasileiras was a set of 9 suites that Villa-Lobos wrote to show the affinities of Brazilian music with that of the ultimate Baroque composer, J.S. Bach. Each of the movements in the Bachianas Brasileiras has both a Baroque title (Toccata, Danza, Aria, Fantasia, etc.) and a Portuguese title. For the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2, we start with a Preludio (Song of the Layabout), continue on to an Aria (Song of our land), a Danza (Remembrance of the Back Country), and finish, unusually for Bach, with a Toccata (The Little Train of Caipira). It is this little train that we will take through the remote landscape of North-Eastern Brazil. And, this sounds like a far more fun train than we rode with Honegger!

Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasiliaras No. 2, IV. Toccata: O trenzinho do Caipira

One of the problems of the 20th century was that of realism. What if the ‘instrument’ you wanted to present in the concert hall was just too big to get through the door? That’s where the miracle of the tape recorder came to the fore. French composer Pierre Schaeffer brought the big sound of steam locomotives into the concert hall as part of his Études de bruits (Studies of Noises). His first study was the Étude aux chemins de fer (Study of the Railroad). Schaeffer was leader in post-WWII avant-garde music, particularly in a style called musique concrete, which took its name from a parallel style in poetry. Using the newly-available tape recorder, for his first essay, Schaeffer recorded trains and then edited the tape to create a new work that didn’t represent the train as much as give you the sound-scape of a train.

Schaeffer: 5 Etudes de bruits – No. 1. Etude aux chemins de fer

Heitor Villa-Lobos Credit:

Heitor Villa-Lobos

These days, however, the most common train that most of us will ride is a subway train and for that we descend into the ground with Amy X. Neuburg and a trios of cellos. The driving cellos remind us of the travel of the train while the lyrics give us an overly-perceptive commentary on the people around the singer who’s also despairing about her relationship. As a modern song-cycle, it’s a far more personal view of travel than the other composers’ could provide.’

Amy X. Neuburg: The Secret Language of Subways: II. Closing Doors

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