wonder whether you recall that self-righteous little poem by Frances
Cornford entitled, rather insensitively, To a Fat Lady Seen from the
Train. My mother was fond of quoting the lines, “O why do you walk
through the fields in gloves, Missing so much and so much?”
Frances Cornford (née
Darwin) was a female poet of modest achievement whose father, the botanist
Sir Francis Darwin was a son of the famous Charles. Her husband somewhat
confusingly, was also named Francis. Anyway, the verse came to mind the
other day, when I was reflecting on my train journey to Chiang Mai several
years ago. There’s something evocative and emotive about trains. Few other
forms of travel heighten the temporal nature of the things around us. If
the train goes slowly enough, which the one to Chiang Mai certainly does,
you can gaze at the locals going about their daily work, unaware of your
attention. Then they pass from view and you realise that your paths in life
will never run so close again. Perhaps you’ve also felt that kind of
melancholy, fleeting sense of loss.
The French of course,
are proud of their super-fast TGV trains. The composer Michael Nyman even
wrote a piece of music about them in 1993 to celebrate the inauguration of
the Paris-Lille TGV Service. Arthur Honegger adored trains and once said,
“I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living
creatures and I love them as others love women or horses.” I don’t know
about you, but I think that sounds a bit creepy.
Honegger was born in
the French coastal town of Le Havre, where his Swiss father imported coffee,
probably from Brazil. Although in later life Honegger wrote a massive
amount of music including three concertos, five symphonies and nearly twenty
ballets, he’s perhaps best-known these days for his music about a train, or
to be more exact, a locomotive.
(1892-1955): Pacific 231.
Symphonique La Folla de Lille, cond. François Clercx (Duration: 09:11;
The Pacific was an
American steam locomotive and as any train buff will tell you, locomotives
are classed by their wheel arrangement. In Britain and America, the Pacific
would be designated as a 4-6-2, meaning that it has four pilot wheels, six
driving wheels, and two trailing wheels. The French of course, have to be
different and count the axles rather than the wheels, hence the numbers
wrote the piece as an exercise in building momentum and originally called it
rather prosaically Mouvement Symphonique, giving it the name
Pacific 231 only after it was finished.
Written in 1923, it
must have taken audiences aback with its jarring harmonies, angular melodic
fragments and abrasive percussion. It certainly gives a vivid impression of
a monstrous locomotive thundering down the tracks. This video is virtually
a re-make of Jean Mitry’s French 1949 classic movie, which used Honegger’s
music as the sound-track.
classical works have been inspired by trains. There’s a tricky piano piece
by Vladimir Deshevov called Rails and the French composer
Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote a fiendishly difficult piano piece called Le
Chemin de Fer. It was written in 1844, only sixteen years after the
appearance of Stephenson’s Rocket, perhaps a slightly optimistic name
for a locomotive whose maximum speed was a stately 28 mph.
The Danish composer
Hans Christian Lumbye wrote a jolly romp called Copenhagen Steam Railway
Galop and in total contrast, there’s the haunting Different Trains,
by Steve Reich scored for string quartet and electronic backing tape. But I
don’t think it’s quite to your taste.
You might even recall
the film Night Mail, a 1936 documentary about the mail train from
London to Scotland. W. H. Auden wrote a poem for it (the film I mean, not
the train) and Benjamin Britten wrote some music. It starred a locomotive
known as the Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman (a 4-6-0 since you asked). And
here’s an interesting connection; the film’s sound director hailed from
Brazil - as does one of the best-loved pieces of train music. But it’s a
very different train to Honegger’s snarling Leviathan.
(1887-1959): The Little Train of the Caipira.
Orchestra of Great Britain, cond. Natalia Luis-Bassa (Duration: 5:25; Video:
Between 1930 and 1945,
Villa-Lobos wrote Bachianas Brasileiras, a series of nine suites for
various combinations of instruments and voices, which blended features of
the European Baroque with folk melodies of Brazil. This charming little
railway piece comes from the second suite and the title refers to the local
trains of the Brazilian countryside.
And by the way, the
poet G. K. Chesterton, who coincidentally was married to someone called
Frances, wrote an amusing rebuke to Frances Cornford. It was a short poem
called The Fat Lady Answers. But I shall leave you to seek it out
for yourself, if these things interest you.