“We are the products of our environment”; “You are what you eat.” These two adages would suggest that much of our human existence is largely determined by where we live and what fills our plates, bowls and cups. In the lavishly illustrated Classical Destinations: An armchair guide to classical music” (Wendy McDougall, photographer), Simon Callow (who hosted the same-name public television series) asserts in the thoughtful “Foreword” that “It’s inconceivable that the geniuses who you will read about in this book—turbulent, passionate and avid for experience—would not have responded viscerally to their surroundings.” What follows are seven excursions into the domiciles, studios and performance venues for many of the world’s best-loved composers of classical music.
Like all books that attempt to describe any aspect of our most universal art, without actual sounds to accompany the text, many of the points made remain largely theoretical. Happily, there is also a companion set of DVD/CD-ROM versions, which would contribute enormously to the value and understanding of this full-sized volume (further information).
Unfortunately, the book’s text (adapted from the original scripts by Matt Wills and Paul Burrows)—particularly the “Composer at a Glance” segments contain numerous typos, awkward words (eventuate), misleading construction (seems that Falstaff was “by then nearly 80” years old rather than the composer when Verdi completed his last masterwork), and unsubstantiated statements (e.g., Bach as the “Father of Classical Music”; Schubert’s Elrkönig “his most celebrated work.”; Haydn as the “Father of the Symphony”—try googling “Father of the String Quartet”) and confused references: Beethoven’s “Pathétique piano concerto”). And the astonishing “fact” that Mozart married Constance Weber 38 years before he was born only serves to weaken a reader’s confidence in the premise.
As to the thesis, there is little doubt to those who have wandered the globe in search of visual stimulation and artistic excellence that Dvořák sounds like the Czech Republic looks (yet his “New World” Symphony shows little absorption of America in the score) and the winds of Finland bluster through many pages of Sibelius’ orchestral writing, but if he’d been born in Spain, been influenced by the same teachers and heard the same music would his style be completely different? Perhaps more intriguingly, if J.S. Bach had been an atheist rather than a devout Lutheran would we have the St. Matthew Passion? Back to the travel context, if Mendelssohn had never ventured out of Leipzig would the world have its insight into Fingal’s Cave?
Here’s the stuff of discourse and debate! Nothing for it but—armed with this book and its musical references—embark on a real (participating hotels are listed as an appendix) or virtual trek into the minds and art of the composers whose music we cherish no matter what its postal code. JWR