A requirement to create art that is ‘relevant’ can be a curse. After all, today’s relevance is tomorrow’s obsolescence. Not only that, the requirement itself, however well-intentioned, can push the artist uncomfortably close to the precipice into full-blown propaganda. No wonder so many prefer to be stimulated to create by their experiences and observations of life. At the same time, few, if any, actively set out to be ir-relevant! Why would anyone bother to communicate then?
So, what makes the difference? Well, I just wonder if the crucial ingredient is that these observations of the mundane provoke spontaneous and heart-felt responses. How much more when the provocation is not mundane at all—such as the Nazi bombardment of the Spanish town of Guernica that so incensed Picasso, or the horrors of the Holocaust which lurks darkly behind one of today’s pieces? The creations that came out of these agonies were located within very specific moments and places and yet they somehow maintain a relevance that transcends time and cultures.
The industrial and post-industrial world has affected us all, in many ways of which we are blithely unaware. It is a machine world, whether analogue or digital. So, inevitably, it has provoked composers.
Pacific 231 “Mouvement Symphonique No. 1” (H.53, 1923)
—Arthur Honegger (1892-1955, Swiss)
Mariss Janssons (conductor), Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Not much of Honegger’s music is played these days. Except this piece. A short blast that might be played at the top of an orchestra’s evening programme, one to blow out cobwebs from ticket-holders’ ears and expunge the brain-detritus from a day in the office. It was written a century ago, can you believe it!? As so often, the clichés of film and TV soundtracks derive from the pioneers of classical music. So if asked to imagine music for a train pulling out of a station and picking up speed—as in, for example, one of the countless versions of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or that classic Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor double act that I so loved as a kid, Silver Streak—then, it might sound a bit like Honegger’s piece.
Intriguingly, it wasn’t called Pacific 231 when he composed it. He wasn’t actually thinking of trains at all. Instead, despite being a train-buff, he had set himself the task of writing a piece of music that gained momentum while simultaneously losing speed. But when he completed it, he gave it the name of a particular class of steam locomotive. Hopefully, you’ll be able to hear precisely why.
A short ride in a fast machine (1986)
—John Adams (1947- , American)
Kurt Masur (conductor), New York Philharmonic
The great poets like Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge all decried the advances of industrialisation. But there’s no denying the thrill and majesty of some machinery. Wonder and amazement are natural responses to, say, a vast hydroelectric dam or a massive freighter aircraft lumbering towards take-off.
John Adams invites us to buckle up in the passenger seat and get psyched for the G-force assault. Ready? It’s quite a short ride. But boy, can it motor…
The Iron Foundry (Op. 1919, 1927-8)
—Alexander Vasilyevich Mosolov (1900-1973, Soviet/Ukrainian)
Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
But sometimes, propaganda is precisely what is expected of creators. If you presume that this is something indulged in by enemies foreign and domestic only, then get real. I’ve recently been fascinated by two books that describe firstly what five Hollywood film directors did during the Second World War (Five Came Back by Mark Harris) and secondly by what was expected of writers on both sides of the Cold War (Duncan White’s superb Cold Warriors: Writers who Waged the Literary Cold War). Composers couldn’t escape either.
So Alexander Mosolov, like all Soviet composers, was expected to serve the interests of ‘the people’—and especially during the Stalin era, the Soviet Union was propelled from essentially agrarian peasant economy to a fully industrialised one within only three decades. It was an astonishing achievement. And Mosolov conveys something of that in this piece, originally written to be part of a ballet simply called—wait for it—Steel! We can hear the mechanised chaos of the foundry. But is there more? Is there not an inherent human, not to mention environmental, cost to this aggressive programme? Perhaps it is just our 2020 sensibilities that colour our listening…I’ll leave you to decide.
Belshazzar’s Feast. IV. Praise Ye The God of Gold (1931)
—William Walton (1902-1983, English)
Sir Bryn Terfel (bass), Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra
You’ll think this piece the odd one out. Far from being set in an industrial landscape we know too well, Walton’s piece casts us back millennia to the world of Israel’s Babylonian Exile. What machinery there was is primitive to say the least. But this excerpt from the cantata (whose text was selected from Daniel and Psalm 137 by Osbert Sitwell) does fit on this list.
Because this movement is a magnificent, inspiring, heart-stopping hymn of praise… to idols. The words are simple: Praise ye… the God of Gold… of Silver… of Iron… of Wood… of Stone… of Brass…
It is utterly pagan. But it is exuberant and joyful, is it not? And totally absurd. Has our era learned nothing? We’re not as crassly idolatrous perhaps (that’s a big perhaps); but how many these days simply add supplementary verses to… the gods of silicon… of digits… of bytes… of gigahertz.
I would love you to listen to the whole of Walton’s masterpiece—for it certainly is that. But it is an example of brilliant musical story-telling. The music as the famous words are mysteriously inscribed on the wall is chilling. And as for the moment when the king was slain… I don’t know a musical moment like it. But that’s all for another day! On we must go with our list.
Toccata in D minor (Op. 11, 1912)
—Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953, Soviet/Russian)
Some will have seen the title of this piece and recognised it. But this is not Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, so beloved of schlocky horror movie organists. This is a pianistic tour de force and is one of those that only the truly brilliant can pull off. In fact, Prokofiev himself (apparently) struggled to play it well enough to perform it—and he was a gifted pianist!
But it is more than keyboard fireworks. Its complexity is mechanistic. So is its violence. There seems barely any room for the human. Which is kind of the point.
Different Trains (1988)
—Steve Reich (1936- , American)
But the true human costs of mechanisation have been under the surface so far in this list. It is now that the appalling ends to which mechanisation can be put are explicit, albeit in a brilliant and deeply unsettling way. It has three movements and is written for a string quartet and tape (made by Reich himself of various voices and industrial sounds).
- America, Before the War (movement 1)
- Europe, During the War (movement 2)
- After the War (movement 3)
Steve Reich (pronounced Rysh) was born in New York to Jewish parents who divorced when he was just one. So much of his childhood was spent travelling between New York and Los Angeles, which naturally enough, meant a lot of time spent on trains. So we hear the voices of people like his governess Virginia and of Lawrence Davis, a retired Pullman porter looking back on the era. We can sense Reich the boy, staring in wide-eyed-wonder at these enormous machines.
But as he looked back from his 50s, it occurred to him that had he lived in Europe, as a Jew, his experiences of train travel would have been entirely different. Three Holocaust survivors (identified as Paul, Rachel and Rachella) thus speak in the second movement. In the final movement, all the voices come together back in America.
The philosopher Theodor Adorno said, ‘After Auschwitz no further poems are possible, except on the foundation of Auschwitz itself.’ There’s a lot going on in that sentence. And room for debate. But what is surely true is that any artform, especially one involving words, will struggle to come even close to being an adequate response to the Holocaust. Once acknowledged, however, it sharpens the mind. And Different Trains is an astonishing attempt at doing just that. It is precisely because it is so oblique, and yet simultaneously personalised via voiceover track, that Reich’s work is so heartbreakingly effective.
This playlist will be updated each Friday with new music recommendations from Mark Meynell.