Even composers need a holiday, a few weeks away from slaving over a hot piano or wrangling with publishers. Travel often acts as inspiration and many composers have returned from their sojourns to sunnier climes bursting with ideas, perhaps having jotted down a melody they heard, or noted a particular instrumental colour. Here’s a selection of musical postcards celebrating some exotic (and sometimes not so exotic!) holiday destinations.

Postcard from Nefta
Postcard from Nefta

1 Chabrier: España

It’s ironic that many of classical music’s most “Spanish” hits have been written by French composers! From Bizet’s Carmen to Ravel’s Boléro, the French have adored their musical excursions across the Pyrenees. In 1882, Emmanuel Chabrier spent five months touring Spain and his study into the dance rhythms he heard are evident in his orchestral rhapsody España, which bursts with Mediterranean sunshine and joie de vivre. Pizzicato strings imitate the guitar before a series of zesty dances evocative of the Iberian peninsula.

2 Glinka: Jota aragonesa

After the less than rapturous reception for his opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, Mikhail Glinka headed off on an extended tour of France and Spain. He arrived in Valladolid in the summer of 1845, where he noted, “Spaniards are honorable, straightforward in their speech, unaffected, and not full of ceremony like the French.” He met a local merchant and guitarist, Felix Castilla, who played a traditional folk tune, the Jota Aragonesa, which he used as the basis for his Capriccio brillante on Jota Aragonesa. After a stern introduction, the Jota weaves its way in, swiftly backed up by dizzying castanets.

3 Tchaikovsky: Capriccio italien

Tchaikovsky loved Italy. He drafted The Queen of Spades whilst in Florence – a visit that inspired his sextet Souvenir de Florence. But it was an earlier trip to Rome, in 1880, that led to his Capriccio italien. Whilst in the Eternal City, Tchaikovsky heard the folk music in the streets and watched carnival revelry, resulting in this celebratory fantasia.

4 Mendelssohn: Scottish Symphony

It was a walking tour of Scotland in 1829 that inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose his Symphony no. 3, subtitled the “Scottish”. The crepuscular opening reflected his visit to the ruins of Holyrood Chapel at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, but the cheerful second movement is drawn from local – possibly bagpipe – themes, surprisingly given that Mendelssohn complained that Scottish folk music gave him “toothache.”

5 Elgar: From the Bavarian Highlands

Edward and his wife, Alice, enjoyed a holiday in Bavaria – mostly centred around Garmisch – in the autumn of 1894. From the Bavarian Highlands was originally a cycle of songs for chorus and orchestra, but three were arranged for orchestra only, including the Dance, which evokes the atmosphere of the Gasthaus at Sonnenbichl, with much beer drinking going on.

6 Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto no. 5 “Egyptian”

Saint-Saëns composed most of his Fifth Piano Concerto on one of his frequent winter trips to Luxor. The Egyptian influence is heard in the seductive G major section of the middle movement featuring croaking frogs, chirping crickets and an evocative Nubian melody which the composer heard being sung by Nile boatmen while he sailed down the river in a dahabieh.

7 Ibert: Escales (Tunis–Nefta)

Jacques Ibert’s Escales (Ports of call) is a trio of musical postcards, perhaps tracing journeys he made when he served in the navy. The second movement takes us from Tunis to Nefta, col legno strings tapping out an hypnotic beat over which a snake-charming oboe weaves its chromatic lines.

8 Holst: Beni mora

When he wasn’t enjoying walking holidays across the English countryside with his pal Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst liked to explore further afield. In 1908, he enjoyed a holiday to Algeria, which led to the composition of his oriental suite, Beni mora. The finale, “In the Street of the Ouled Naïls”, opens with an unassuming eight-note theme which he heard played on the flute, which is then repeated 163 times(!) as other dance rhythms jostle and overlap.

9 Gershwin: Cuban Overture

A holiday in Havana (“two hysterical weeks… where no sleep was had”) led to George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. Originally entitled Rumba, it rejoices in Cuban rhythms and percussion (maracas, bongos, claves and a guiro), paying homage to Échale Salsita by local bandleader Ignacio Piñeiro. 

10 Milhaud: Le Bœuf sur le toit

Darius Milhaud spent World War 1 in Brazil, serving as secretary to the poet Paul Claudel, who was the French ambassador. Milhaud’s infectious Le Bœuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) is named after a Brazilian popular song and the composer hoped it could be used to accompany a Charlie Chaplin film. It’s a wild affair, drawing on popular melodies, maxixes (a Brazilian tango), sambas and even a Portuguese fado, stitched together by an upbeat rondo theme.

Happy holidays!