Tag Archives: trains

Rossini’s little train


When I look at of the books in my library, the only thing I can remember in most cases is whether I have read them or not. Books in the second-largest category trigger one single anecdote or image and nothing else. One image which has been in my head for decades now comes from a book by Alberto Savinio (the brother of the painter Giorgio De Chirico), who was a fine writer and music critic, but of whom the only thing I recall is this passage he wrote about Gioacchino Rossini:

When, in Rossini’s symphonies, the allegro theme with the repeated little notes starts up, followed by one of his famous crescendos, I close my eyes and I see an ancient train with the steam engine in front, an ostrich-neck smoke stack with something like a pasta colander on top and the open-sided carriages behind, the curtains flapping and all full of fat Rossinis, paunchy and chuckling, who blow kisses to the crowd and shout out witticisms. The train starts giving off slow puffs, which then pick up pace, until they reach a steady, blistering speed, and the train races through the countryside, which is green with astonishment.

I often think about that when I hear Rossini’s music.  Here are some of his famous crescendos. Try and see the train going by. Or get on and stand behind all the Rossinis as you go through the greenly astonished countryside.

Rossini retired from writing operas when he was 37. He wrote some other music, including some pieces which he called “Old Age Sins”, one of which is about peas (Ouf, les petis pois!).

He was famous for his witticisms. Just like the images from my books, I recall one in number. It’s about Wagner (look away now, Wagner fans):

“Mr. Wagner has some wonderful moments, but some awful quarters of an hour.”

(Note: the caricature of Rossini is by David Levine. You can see several other outstanding examples of his art here.)

Ninety Train Rides

When I was a child, my family used to travel from Britain to Italy most summers to stay with my Italian grand-parents. Every time we crossed the Channel I was sick. I was given all kinds of advice, sometimes from other passengers, and I tried hard to apply their methods.  I remember “stare at the horizon and don’t look at the waves” and “bend your head to the right every time there is a swell”. There was a different method every time but none of them worked. There was never a ferry on which I wasn’t sick. Once I thought I had succeeded in making the crossing unscathed but I threw up when we were only about fifty yards out from the harbour.

Perhaps this is why I became so fond of trains. Getting on in Calais or Boulogne was salvation. I fell in love with the sounds, the rhythm, the wild swinging as you passed from carriage to carriage. And I remember how much I liked the landscape of the North of France. And the grime and soot of the Gare du Nord in Paris. And the  prospect of buying a soft drink called Pschitt! from a platform vendor. (In French it is supposed to suggest the sound made when you open a fizzy drink bottle, but to the ears of a very young English boy it sounded much more excitingly outrageous).

Since then I have been on trains on four continents and a lot of those trips have been among my best travel experiences.So I was delighted  to come across an article in Salon magazine entitled “The Irresistible Appeal of the Train Movie” , which discussed the best film sequences with trains. Number one on the list was Days of Heaven, a film I liked a lot, but to be honest I didn’t remember the opening sequence below.

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The Observation Car

Somewhere along the line

(Listen to the poem here)

The train for Kandy leaves Colombo Fort
just as the morning heat begins to swell.
Inside the observation car the rusty fans
begin to turn and tilt. We watch the platform
where we stood for one, two quarters
of an hour slide off our moving stage.
And now we’re ready for the world
to come by and perform for us.
Read more…