Un grand-bi en 1932 sur un pont londonien
Un grand-bi en 1932 sur un pont londonien © Getty  /  Fox Photos / Intermittent

Classical Music and Cycling

Every summer some 200 cyclists compete in the Tour de France. You might feel inclined to hum Yve Montand's 'By Bicycle' at this juncture but this competition and means of transport have also been a source of inspiration for a number of other artists...

In order to compose some writers are inspired by the beauty of nature, others by trouble in love, and then there are those who feel creative when thinking about cycling. Well, why not? Cycling encompasses so much: the city, the countryside, competition, pleasure, speed, relaxation, romanticism, childhood. 

Bicycle-inspired Works 

Composers have been particularly fascinated by the sounds that this everyday object can produce. One of the most well-known pieces exploring this concept is Nutcracker for Bike Parts by Flip Barber where the composer reimagined the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the ballet by Tchaikovsky, using bicycle noises. The glockenspiel and clarinet are replaced by the spokes of the wheel, the cello pizzicatos by gear cables and the percussion instruments are substituted with the spokes, brakes, chains, pedals etc. This project was not however an entirely artistic one as it was commissioned by a bicycle manufacturer. 

The Argentinian composer Mauricio Kagel really wanted to create a work of art from the bicycle or rather with cyclists. Eine Brise is performance piece for 111 cyclists. Participants follow precise choreography, accompanied by rattling sounds, whispers and recited sentences.... The work was premiered on May 29th, 2000 in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Rather than creating just one piece, Richard Lerman took the gamble of making an entire album using recorded sounds of bicycles in motion. The composer placed recording devices directly onto bicycles to the capture the sounds that would then become a melody. 

Inspiration While Pedalling 

Classical composers are not left out when it comes to taking inspiration from cycling. Josef Strauss (son of Johann Strauss) composed Vélocipède, a polka for orchestra in Vienna in 1869. The composer lived at a time when there was great excitement about this unusual object, the velocipede (from which the French name for bicycle is derived).

To find inspiration some composers occasionally need silence while others require external stimuli. However, many find inspiration from within through oxygenating the soul. And what better way to clear your mind than by taking a bicycle ride? 

The British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams often used this method. In doing so he felt able to transport himself back to his childhood, "It makes me feel like I'm still safe on my tricycle" he wrote to his friend Randolph Wedgewood

Another composer who enjoyed taking bicycle rides was Gustav Holst. In 1908 he went to visit Algeria to rest. As a result of this visit Beni Mora was composed. This work was inspired by indigenous music, his encounters and his long bicycle rides across the country. 

Finally, if there is a figure that one automatically associates with the bicycle, it is Edward Elgar who has even been immortalised in statue form standing beside his trusty bicycle, which he nicknamed Mr. Phoebus. He cycled throughout England in order to find inspiration and was never afraid of notching up miles (he cycled over eighty kilometres to announce the news of his knighthood to his father). 

La statue de bronze d'Elgar qui pose à côté de son vélo se trouve en Angleterre
La statue de bronze d'Elgar qui pose à côté de son vélo se trouve en Angleterre  © Getty  /  Loop Images / Contributeur

Cycling and music do not always inspire beautiful stories of love and inspiration. The conductor Arturo Toscanini, for example, attempted to learn how to ride an old-fashioned bicycle with a larger front wheel, it did not have any breaks (as they had not yet been invented) and he experienced a violent fall when travelling downhill. He swore he would never ride a bicycle again, he kept this promise until he had to rehabilitate a knee injury on an exercise bike in his old age. 

Another composer whose association with the bicycle produced a less than fairytale ending was Ernest Chausson. In 1899 the composer fell from his bike and died at the age of just 44. 

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