Songs of Travel

Over the last five seasons we have been exploring different aspects of Enlightenment thinking. In 2022/23 our sixth, and final, chapter will look at travel.  

The idea of a journey excites us all. Whether it is a new adventure or one we have made dozens of times before.  Travel and the idea of leaving home left a deep impression on the British and European mindset in the 17th and 18th centuries. And, of course, it is one of the great literary metaphors with the promise of discovering something about ourselves on the way to our destination.   

The eighteenth century was a whirlwind of correspondences. International navigation was leaping forward with Captain James Cook’s maritime expeditions whilst newspapers, novels and engravings were distributing ideas and images in a manner previously unparalleled. As a result, the intellectual aspiration of the common man gained a wholly new stride. One which would reach beyond the bounds of the immediate and conventional into new realms of existence: far off lands, radical political thought, belief beyond convention and transports of the artistic soul which would make the desperate leap into the passions and turmoil of romanticism. The song of travel eventually becomes the realisation of self as hero in the flight from non-social space to the strange and wonderful of the nineteenth century: exoticism, opiate dreams, mesmerism, madness and the supernatural. 

The music we’ve selected for the season reflects journeys that are physical and of the mind. Though their work was created over the course of more than a century Purcell, Handel and Coleridge were all able to imagine unknown places through the descriptions of others, whilst Gilbert and Sullivan often put the fantastical to use to satirise the contemporary. For Mozart and Bach’s two most famous sons – Carl Philipp Emmanuel and Johann Christian – leaving their home towns became a necessary journey to find their own place in the world, a journey many of us still make today. Camille Saint-Saëns is perhaps the forgotten bearer of the baton of French music along its path, a crucial link in a line of composers from Couperin and Rameau to Ravel (who held his one time teacher in considerable reverance) and Dutilleux. 

Music by its very existence is about community and shared journeys. We find two very different explorations of individual freedom and our collective belonging in our season. In The Moon Hares, our magical family opera featuring original music by James Redwood alongside Purcell, we witness the transformation that happens when a whole village awakens to the joys of questioning the rules. JS Bach in the Mass in B Minor looks beyond that which divides us to seek joy in common belief. 

What might the great Enlightenment thinkers – Rousseau, Voltaire, Paine and others – make of our journey’s progress in the last 250 years since Rousseau’s declaration that

“Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”?

The same vessels which sailed from nations avowing a belief in ‘égalité, liberté et fraternité’ also exported inequity and injustice and on an industrial scale. It is impossible to separate the journey in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ from the injustices of the transatlantic slave trade and the devastating impact of Cook’s arrival on the first peoples of Australia. During the season we will reflect on the ramifications of the expeditions that set out from European shores and how we can contribute to creating a new social contract.

It is the striving, the endlessly incomplete project of the journey which bring us closest to truth. This is why our music is so powerful as both message and metaphor. It inspires us to continue the journey, to be courageous with the renewed adventure of living and being better.

View the full season here. Priority booking will open for Friends and Patrons on 29 April with general booking from 5 May.