A Classic Encounter With A Train

We’ve gotten quite thematic at the symphony. You listen to Beethoven’s 5th, and there is really no story line to follow or a visual that would illustrate what Ludwig was thinking about while composing. Music does not always have a theme. But last month at Classic Encounter the whole concert dealt with four composers takes on Shakespeare, and this month it was a work about a specific model of train.

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OK. Now I have your attention. Classic Encounter, if you don’t know, is a monthly pre-concert lecture series at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Martha Gilmer of the CSO, and me of XRT. Now, let’s get back on track. Arthur Honegger was a Swiss composer who spent most of his life in France, born in 1892 and died in 1955. He may have heard doo wop in his later years. Or not. But he was a busy composer. Five symphonies, oratorios, operas, ballets and chamber music. And a remarkable piece about a train. He once said he loved trains like some people love women or horses. You could go a lot of places with that quote, but, again, we will stay on track. But what queen died when she was having relations with a horse? Anyway, this piece was composed in 1923, and originally it was not meant to be about trains. Honegger said it was a musical exercise in building momentum while the tempo slows. Try it. It’s not easy. But he did name it Pacific 231, Mouvement Symphonique #1. And the Pacific 231 is an actual train. So there you go. In fact, in 1949 a film was made of the Pacific 231 with Honegger’s work as a soundtrack.

As we will see here, the train is a very popular figure in our culture. Exhibit A.

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