Hawaii residents know I have a collection of model airplanes representing the airlines that serve Hawaii, and many infer from this that I am a plane buff. While it is true that my father’s parents are buried at Friendship Cemetery, overlooking the runways of Baltimore-Washington International, and while it is true that we would go there some Sundays, pay our respects, then watch the planes take off and land, the full truth is that I have always been a railroad buff, and on the mainland built model train layoffs in my garage.
So it should be no surprise that in the 10 years “Howard’s Day Off” has been on the air, I have done shows on train music every couple years, each time adding some (musical) tracks I didn’t have for the last one. This weekend I do it again.
By far the best known classical train piece is “Pacific 231,” composed in the Roaring Twenties by Arthur Honegger, a Swiss composer working in Paris and an avid train buff himself. Classical announcers often say “two thirty-one” but the correct way to say it is “two three one,” because the title refers to a specific model steam locomotive then used on the Union Pacific Railroad, and the numbers refer successively to the number of axles. Looking at a Pacific 231 from the side you see two small wheels, three large drive-wheels, and one small wheel.
The piece is a tour de force, using rhythmic switches to give the sense of a close-up view (when the train is starting) and a wide angle view when it is at full speed. Some of the music is pre-echoed by an obscure score Honegger composed for a French documentary film, and I’ll excerpt that bit, written one year before “Pacific 231,” in 1922.
In 1930 the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, on his second trip to Paris (his first was in 1923 but he may not have heard “Pacific 231,” because Serge Koussevitsky premiered it in May and Villa-Lobos arrived in July), wrote “O Trenzinho do Caipira,” which I usually render in English as “The Little Train of the Countryside” but which translates more accurately as the Little Train of the Countryman.” It is very different from “Pacific 231.” It has trouble working up speed, never really goes too fast, and eventually breaks down! In its own way it conveys as much realism as the Honegger work. There is also a modern rendition of it on synthesizer by the Brazilian-born Sicilian-Lebanese composer Egberto Gismonti, which I’ll also play.
Less known for its depiction of a train is “Night Ride and Sunrise” by Jean Sibelius, which offers a spare, modernist depiction of a train. I’ll play the train part of the work alongside another Sibelius work which uses the same general rhythmic idea to depict horses rather than an iron horse.
Steve Reich created a more recent railroad masterpiece with “Different Trains,” a string quartet with snippets of sounds including train whistles and very short sound bites of people interviewed about trains. As a child Reich rode trains between New York and Los Angeles, the cities where his separated parents lived. The first movement is about that. Then the music turns to the different trains that fellow Jews rode to death camps in World War II. The music of the instruments tracks the pitches of the voices in the sound bites.
Other pieces sampled on this show include Mason Williams’ “Train Ride in G,” Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home,” Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,” Roy Acuff’s “Wabash Cannonball” and many more. It is worth mentioning that there are dozens of songs about trains in folk and country music. I won’t have time to sample “Tennessee Central Number Nine,” or “Orange Blossom Special,” but we’ll get to both the Lonnie Donegan version of “Rock Island Line” and the Stan Freberg parody of the recording.
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