Understanding The Tradition of “Program Music”

El Caminante is a piece I love teaching.

It’s a 5th grade piece with Trinity College London and in so many ways it sums up the technical and musical demands of 5th grade.

As a player, if you accomplish 5th grade then you have a great launching pad to move and grow into the higher grades – to achieve your full musical potential.

The title “El Caminante” translates from Spanish as “the walker” but that doesn’t quite tell the story… the story is the point.

When a piece of instrumental music depicts a story, without words, we call it Program Music.

There’s a huge tradition of Program Music e.g. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” or the Symphonic Poems of Franz Liszt.

Liszt is one of music’s great characters.

He was one of the greatest pianists of all times and it is said that he was music’s first “Rock Star”.

His popularity was such that it was called “Lisztomania” which is also the name of a movie made in the 70’s by the English experimental film maker Ken Russell.

As a player, if you accomplish 5th grade then you have a great launching pad to move and grow into the higher grades – to achieve your full musical potential

Steve flack

It starred Roger Daltrey as Liszt with Ringo Star and Rick Wakeman making appearances.

It’s kind of crazy and you need to know Liszt’s story for it to make sense.

If you’re interested in Liszt, the University of Southern California made a great documentary called “Liszt In The World” which is excellent. You can find it on Google.

Franz Liszt was a child prodigy so his father took him to Vienna to study and was taught by Carl Czerny who had been a student of Beethoven.

There’s a great story of Liszt meeting Beethoven.

“Kiss Of Destiny” The Beethoven Liszt Meeting

It was said that Beethoven was so impressed that he kissed him which was called the “kiss of destiny”.

Later, Liszt’s father (who was basically his manager) moved them to Paris to promote young Franz’s career. It took some time but Liszt was to eventually become a central figure in Paris’s musical life.

Franz Liszt

At the age of 21 Liszt attended a concert by Paganini who was maybe the greatest violinist ever. Liszt was astonished and at the same time dumbfounded by Paganini’s performance. He determined to reproduce, on the piano, what Paganini was doing on the violin.

Liszt did what American Jazz musicians called “woodshedding” meaning that he took himself away and practiced intensely.

Like Charlie Parker the great Jazz sax player…

Practice! Practice! Practice!

At the age of 16 Charlie Parker practiced up to 15 hours a day for a whole year! the result was a technique and musicianship that blew everyone away.

Liszt similarly put in 12 hours a day of practice which took his playing from brilliant to superhuman.

One of my favourite works of Liszt’s is his “Piano Sonata in B Minor” which is Program Music. It tells the story of “Faust” the ageing academic who sold his soul to the Devil to regain his youth.

Charlie Parker (New Yorker)

Faust was a favourite story of the 1800’s. There were plays, operas, novels and of course Liszt’s Sonata.

It’s curious that he should have chosen Faust as a subject because the rumour at the time was that Paganini had sold his soul to the Devil to become the best violinist.

El Caminante is Program Music. But it’s subject is not so sinister as Faust.

It’s a musical depiction of the “Camino De Santiago” which is one of Europe’s 3 most famous pilgrimages, the others being Rome and Jerusalem.

The Pilgrimage Hike Camino De Santiago

The Camino De Santiago starts at a point in France and the pilgrims walk through the Pyrenees mountains with the destination of Santiago De Compostela, in Galicia, a region of northern Spain.

Although it is a religious pilgrimage, many non religious people walk the Camino also.

It’s a real achievement for someone to make it on foot and the scenery is really something.

Galicia is a very attractive region of Spain with everything from historical buildings to great surf beaches to check out.

The tradition is that the Apostle James was buried at Santiago De Compostela which is why it became a place of interest for pilgrims.

Santiago is the Galician form of St James.

El Caminante Analysis – “Pizzicato”

El Caminante starts in the dark key of A Minor and the first 8 bars are to be played “pizzicato”.

For violin pizzicato means plucking the strings with fingers rather than playing with the bow which gives a kind of muffled sound.

On the guitar pizzicato is achieved by muting the strings by placing the palm of the hand on the bridge which gives a sound similar to that of the plucked violin.

There are a few time changes in the course of “El Caminante” which creates interest rhythmically.

There’s a nice run up the scale from the 1st position up to the 5th position in triplets and I imagine our pilgrim ascending the Pyrenees.

Finally the last 8 bars are a repeat of the first 8 bars but this time in the bright, happy key of D Major which leads me to think that our pilgrim has arrived and the D Major chord sounds kind of bell like.

The cathedral does ring the bells as the pilgrims walk into town.