Noteworthy Travel: Composer’s Homes and Museums
Travel is to be enjoyed by all the senses:
seeing, tasting, hearing and touching. Well, maybe not touching – at least not in 99% of the world’s museums — but to me, coming from a musical home, my most touching travel experiences come from hearing — hearing great music within the walls of great architecture by attending performances in many of the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls while listening to musical masterpieces from the world’s greatest composers
If you’re also a great music aficionado – in addition to visiting where great music by great composers is performed – you’ll want to add to your travel music appreciation and visit where great music was actually written – composers’ homes turned into museums.
“Composers’ Homes and their Music Festival” –The Classical Music version of “Dinner and a Movie”
And luckily the easiest way to visit where composers wrote their music and where that music is also performed is to visit music festivals staged in cities where composers lived.
Let’s start with the city that holds perhaps the best-known music festival, which doesn’t just have a composer’s home – but actually has a composer’s two homes – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Salzburg.
In addition, both of Mozart’s homes are also museums. “Let’s start at the very beginning” (to quote Salzburg’s most famous singing nun, Julie Andrews) and visit Mozart’s Birthplace in the center of town. Then cross the Salzach River to visit the Mozart Family House – with a collection of Mozart’s violins, clavichord and pianoforte along with Mozart’s original scores, letters, documents and family portraits.
If you love Wagner – visit Richard Wagner’s home at his annual music festival in Bayreuth. And should you not like Wagner – the music or the man – you can also visit the room in which Wagner died in the Casino of Venice — in the Renaissance Palazzo Ca Vendramin Calergi, which is the largest Wagner museum outside of Bayreuth. (I always wondered why – if you’re a fan of someone why you’d want to celebrate the date of their death and the place where they died – and stopped creating?)
While Bonn Germany used to be known as the “Capital of West Germany” – thanks to Beethoven, it’s still well known but as “Beethoven’s Birthplace” and home of the annual “Beethovenfest.” (And the fact that “Beethovenfest” is in one long single word – and not two –“Beethoven Festival” – automatically gives away the fact that this annual festival is located in Germany.)
Scandinavian music is “Grieg” to me. However, one of my favorite musical experiences was hearing Grieg’s Piano Concerto (A opus 16) at the Bergen International Music Festival – while also dropping in on his home in Bergen, Norway.
The annual Festival Verdi in Parma (usually held in October after most of the summer music festivals) celebrates its resident (actually nearby resident) the composer Giuseppe Verdi who was born outside Parma in a rustic house in Roncale and lived most of his life in his nearby villa in Sant-Agata at the Villa Verdi where he composed most of his famous operas. Both homes are now Verdi Museums — shrines for opera lovers from around the world which should not be missed.
And speaking of music (or rather than “speaking” – “listening” to music) Parma is also home to one of the world’s greatest conductors, Arturo Toscanini – whose birthplace is also a museum. (FYI: Toscanini’s daughter was married to the great virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz who frequently played the piano in his townhouse in Manhattan’s East 80s – with his windows wide open. To the delight of this neighbor.)
Too many tourists rush from Florence to Venice without stopping in the cities in between (in Italy’s beautiful Emilia Romagna region) — cities that are equally as fascinating but without the crowds. Why wait in line to see the doors of Florence’s Baptistery when you can easily enter the Parma’s equally magnificent doors and visit its almost always empty Baptistery. Visit the Cathedral of Parma with its spellbinding trompe (pronounced “Trump”) l’oeil (pronounced, “l-OY”) frescos that defy space and gravity and foretell the Baroque by the great artist, Correggio.
In addition to Parma’s great art, architecture, and music — you can eat Eggplant Parmigiana with Parma’s world renowned hams before you attend a concert with a few performing hams.
If there’s a Verdi Festival – then you know Italy must also have a Puccini festival – the Festival Puccini. But this time it’s the festival that’s not in the actual city where Puccini was born – instead it takes place in beautiful Torre del Lago. However, if you haven’t been to the great walled Tuscan city of Lucca – you have yet another reason to visit – to see Puccini’s Birthplace and museum located within those city walls – where you’ll see Puccini’s original manuscripts, his letters (from and to the famous) and even some original furniture.
Before we leave the festive world of composers’ music festivals – let’s visit Leipzig and its annual “Bachfest” featuring the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach. While Leipzig is home of the annual Bachfest — it’s also “Bach homeless.” Ironically, the city that celebrates where Bach lived and where he composed most of his masterpieces — Leipzig — didn’t preserve the home where Bach wrote them. (Bach’s home was demolished in the early 20th century.) However, much of Bach’s original sheet music is preserved in the Bach Museum — which is in the former home of friends of the Bach family – the Bose House – where you can also hear Bach on that family’s speakers – Bose Speakers.
Cities with Composer’s Homes without Festivals
If in addition to being an aficionado of Baroque music – you’re also a fan of the 19th-century’s Romantic Movement – you’ll love the more emotional side of Leipzig’s split musical personally. Leipzig not only kept the homes of three great composers — it also restored them as museums — the homes of the great composers — Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. Ah ha! I only mentioned two homes and cite three great composers? The Schumann House was also home to Mrs. Robert Schumann aka “Clara Schumann” – who was a virtuoso pianist as well as a brilliant composer in her own right.
While there’s no Mendelssohn Festival – the Felix Mendelssohn House also has a salon for small intimate concerts. The museum comprises Mendelssohn’s original scores, letters and even shows off yet another aspect of this genius – Mendelssohn’s original watercolors.
For Generation Z that considers “classical music” — the Beatles — you must visit Liverpool and visit where the Beatles got their start. You can even see the homes where they grew up – where they first performed – and you’ll get to visit the Strawberry Fields that’s not in Central Park. And there’s another must-see Liverpool site, the Beatles Museum.
Momma Mia! If you really want to see a music museum devoted to another great musical group – you can’t miss Stockholm’s ABBA Museum. There’s even an ABBA City Tour so there’s lots to see – and listen to.
Composer’s Homes in the Music Capitals of Europe
Just as in the 20th century every movie wannabe gravitated to Hollywood — Vienna served that purpose for aspiring composers from the 18th through early 20th centuries. Believe it or not Vienna even has some museums that are not devoted to music. However, if you can’t make it Bonn to visit Beethoven’s Birthplace or Salzburg to visit Mozart’s – you can still visit their Vienna homes — Beethoven’s Pasqualati House (where he wrote his Fifth Symphony) and the Mozart House (where he wrote “The Marriage of Figaro”).
And if you really like the music of Schubert – you’ve come to the right city. You can visit two Schubert homes — Schubert’s Birthplace and where Schubert’s last symphony wasn’t finished — but where Schubert was “finished” – Schubert’s Deathplace.
And Schubert wasn’t the only composer with two houses in Vienna. Not far from the blue Danube is the apartment and museum of the man who wrote “The Blue Danube” – Johann Strauss Jr. And if you really like Strauss son and father – waltz over the Strauss Family Home Museum that opened in 2015.
Another Vienna composer ‘s home is a flip on the double Schubert and Strauss homes – it’s the Franz Joseph Haydn Home and Museum — this time one home for two composers. The Johannes Brahms Museum is “hidin’ ” in the Hadyn Museum – the home of composer Joseph Haydn — since no Brahms house in Vienna survives. And when you think about it – since Haydn was mentor to Mozart and teacher of Beethoven – the Haydn House is affiliated with four of the world’s greatest composers.
London has always been a world music capital – but mostly for “music appreciation.” London does have a great composer’s home, the home of George Frederic Handel, which was opened as a museum as recently as 2001. In 2010, it merged with the Jimi Hendrix Home next door –and became the “Handel & Hendrix Museum” – no joke! And I thought the “Odd Couple” lived on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. (That’s a joke.)
While there aren’t many homes in London of composers who actually wrote music while living in London – there are many homes where composers stayed while visiting London to perform over the centuries. The homes (and hotels) where many of the world’s most famous composers stayed are noted with what I call London’s famous “Blue Plate Specials” – the ubiquitous round blue plaques connoting the actual buildings where composers stayed while visiting. Those plagues make London the perfect place to “walk music history” from Mozart to Mahler. St. James Place #4 was the address where my favorite composer, Frederick Chopin, stayed while in London. And the former Dieudonne Hotel is where my other favorite composer, Tchaikovsky, stayed. And both those buildings still exist.
Touring Europe by Composer – Instead of City
In addition to Vienna, Paris was a great 19th-century composer mecca –which we’ll visit through the eyes – and ears – of Frederick Chopin on a Chopin Tour of Europe. Since you already know that my heart is with Frederick Chopin – let’s start in the city that captured Chopin’s heart – Warsaw — in his native Poland. Warsaw literally captured Chopin’s heart — which is actually encased in a column in Warsaw’s Basilica of the Holy Cross. (Chopin’s organ near the church’s organ.)
Warsaw should be renamed “Chopinville” – since you start your visit by landing at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport. Once in the city center you can walk the Chopin Route from his spectacular Art Nouveau monument in beautiful Lazienki Park to the Chopin Museum in Ostrogski Palace, which even has a cast of Chopin’s death mask and dried flowers from Chopin’s funeral. There are so many sites associated with Chopin along the route that Warsaw now has multimedia “Chopin benches” where you can relax and learn more about the composer.
Chopin’s fully furnished birthplace in nearby Zelazowa Wola completes the Chopin Polish Pilgrimage. Not to be missed during warm weather is its Chopin concert. With the home’s windows opened — a pianist plays Chopin indoors while the audience enjoys the music sitting outside in the beautifully landscaped garden.
When you pledge allegiance — you place your hand over your heart. Well, we’ve found Chopin’s heart. Now let’s head toward Chopin’s hand – his hand cast in bronze on display in a wonderful Paris museum, the Musee de la Vie Romantique – (Museum of Romantic Life) in the former studio of the 19th-century celebrity portraitist, Ary Scheffer — then a country home now in the center of Paris just below Montmartre. For decades Scheffer and his daughter hosted salons — which became a mecca for the rich and famous. Chopin and his lover, famous novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), were regular weekend guests – which accounts for the exhibition devoted just to them. Among other prominent musical guests at this “summer house” were Franz Liszt (portrait by Scheffer), Giacomo Rossini, and Charles Gounod. It was the Paris place of European intelligentsia that even hosted creatives in other genres such as Charles Dickens.
You haven’t really seen the best of the Chateaux of the Loire if you miss Chateau Nohant – George Sand’s country home and love nest with Chopin. You can still see the room where Chopin composed with the padding Sands installed to soundproof it — which is still on its doors and wall. Franz Liszt, who wrote the Hungarian Rhapsody, had his own rhapsody there. At Nohant, Lizst had a affair with a countess who abandoned her husband and children resulting in her giving birth to Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, who wound up marrying Richard Wagner. Like Zelazowa Wola, Nohant also has its annual Chopin Festival every summer, which I very highly recommend.
And if you can’t get enough of Chopin in Poland and France, fly to Spain’s island of Mallorca to see the 13th-century monastery in Valldemossa where Chopin and Sand spent a dreary winter and where you can see the piano on which Chopin composed his Preludes. The Valledemossa Chopin Museum also has Chopin’s death mask and its own cast of Chopin’s Hand – but this one is plaster, not bronze. (But then Paris is much more elegant than Mallorca.)
To complete the Chopin tour return to Paris’s elegant Place Vendome to see where Chopin died in 1849 – at #12 Place Vendome – across from the Ritz. When the building was a bank – I was given permission to bring my guests to the actual room in which Chopin passed. (FYI: If you like someone, they don’t just “die” – they “pass” instead.)
And finally, whenever I’m near Pere Lachaise Cemetery, I pay a visit to Chopin’s grave. For two reasons – to pay homage to the composer and to feel uplifted seeing young people from around the world – many of whom also bring stools — park themselves there while listening to his music. While composers of classical music aren’t eternal – their music is.
Being a great European music capital – Paris was home to many other composers foreign and French – and many of those homes are now museums. Since Paris is a great fashion center as well as music center — if you want to see where the Bolero was written, put on your bolero and head to nearby Montfort-l’Amaury to the Maurice Ravel Museum. Then – in another Paris suburb, historic St. Germain-en-Laye — visit the Musee Claude Debussy.
Despite the Pandemic — Paris had two fantastic museums opening this year—the Musee de Hotel Marine and The Pinault Collection in the magnificent Bourse de Commerce. And yet another museum is expected to open very soon — a composer’s home – the Bizet Museum in Bougival
Before we leave Paris let’s visit Paris’ Parc de la Villette to see (and hear) my favorite museum of musical instruments many owned by famous composers in the Musee Cite de la Musique — where you not only see instruments (owned by your favorite composers) – you can also hear those composers’ compositions on recordings of the instruments displayed. Paris doesn’t rest on its musical laurels – for the Bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, Paris opened its second opera house, the Opera Bastille. And in the 21st century – it opened Jean Nouvel’s masterpiece modern concert hall the Philharmonie de Paris also in Parc de la Villette — bringing even more music to a park, which used to house a slaughterhouse.
You can travel the route of just about any composer who’s traveled. For example, follow Mozart from London, to Paris — where you can visit where Mozart stayed in the Hotel Beauvais (now a law court) — to the Bertramka Villa in Prague where he wrote Don Giovanni and conducted its premiere at Prague’s jewel-box gem of a theater, the Estates Theater.
There’s nothing like seeing a Mozart opera at the Estates Theater – I can’t wait to return to see another.
If you can’t visit a composer’s home – try visiting a concert hall where he (or she) conducted. In Russia, while you can visit Tchaikovsky’s country home outside Moscow in Klin – you can also attend many venues where Tchaikovsky actually conducted. I eerily heard Tchaikovsky’s last symphony – the “Pathetique” (Symphony No. 6) — which was, in reality, his dirge – in the actual hall where Tchaikovsky conducted it at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic just days before he died. I’ve even seen Tchaikovsky’s piano in the wonderful 18th-century Sheremetev Palace — which also serves as St. Petersburg’s excellent Museum of Musical Instruments. And you can even hear Tchaikovsky’s piano played in concerts in the Palace’s concert hall.
When in St. Petersburg, I always stay at one of my favorite hotels in the world – the elegant Grand Hotel Europe – and usually on the floor on which Tchaikovsky had his “honeymoon” (yes, with a women). However, unfortunately you can’t visit Tchaikovsky’s St. Petersburg home where he died (which is just around the corner from another great world-class hotel – the Hotel Astoria) in a building that still exists. As a Tchaikovsky groupie, I’ve actually been privileged to be shown the apartment where Tchaikovsky died. I think St. Petersburg should extend that honor and should buy Tchaikovsky’s last apartment, turn it into a museum and open it to the public.
That’s why I especially enjoy attending concerts at New York City’s Carnegie Hall where, for its grand opening in 1891, Andrew Carnegie imported Russia’s greatest composer, Peter Tchaikovsky, who dazzled New York conducting his own great compositions. Besides attending Carnegie Hall, I also bask in Tchaikovsky’s aura at the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Design Museum – formerly Andrew Carnegie’s Fifth Avenue mansion — where Tchaikovsky was feted by New York society.
Perhaps the most traveled 19th-century composer is Franz Lizst. Who also happened to be friends with many contemporary composers for yet another reason. Liszt was a virtuoso pianist who excelled at playing other composers’ compositions (as well as playing around with women which we already saw at Chateau Nohant).
Just as the Hamptons is the watering hole of 21st-century American glitterati – Lake Como (near Milan) was the 19th-century retreat for many illustrious composers. Its three main villas Bellagio’s Villa Meltzi, Villa Margherita and the Villa Pliniana attracted the likes of Verdi, Puccini, Rossini and Bellini (who wrote his most famous opera, Norma, at Pliniana). And, of course, Franz Lizst stayed at all three villas – but not at the same time.
After you’ve visited the villas and chateaux where Liszt visited his musical friends – a definite must-see is Lizst’s Apartment and Museum in the heart of Budapest – where for a change — Lizst was host — instead of guest — to his illustrious friends. And his apartment in Budapest is a very apropos location for the man whose most famous work is — his Hungarian Rhapsody.
Sleeping with your Favorite Composer
Believe it or not – in many cities you can even sleep with your favorite composer – as I’ve done at Tchaikovsky’s St. Petersburg hotel – the Grand Hotel Europe. In Venice, you can stay in the Hotel Londra where in room 104 Tchaikovsky wrote his Symphony #4. Also in Venice is the Rio Hotel, in which Venice’s famous native son, Vivaldi, lived. (As a frequent traveler to Venice, I’m still awaiting my dream Venice concert, “Frankie Vivaldi and the Four Seasons” playing “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.”)
In Rome, while I’ve actually slept in Verdi’s room at the beautiful Quirinale Hotel – with a special convenient passage that leads to the Rome Opera House. However, I decided to forgo sleeping in Verdi’s room in Milan at the Grand Hotel et de Milan since it’s the room where Verdi died. While Verdi composed in that suite – he also started to decompose there.
And for an ultimate relaxing Verdi hotel experience – let’s return to Lake Como’s elegant Villa Pliniana – today a luxury hotel and member of “The Leading Hotels of the World” — where you can relax where Verdi did (and – of course – Lizst, too.)
And if you like the American Western music of the great Aaron Copeland, stay in his room at the Empire Hotel just across from New York’s Lincoln Center after you’ve visited the nearby home of the man who wrote our country’s most famous “Western music” – the home of the composer of “Westside Story” Leonard Bernstein – who lived at the Dakota. And while you’re there you’ll likely see a few tourists gathered outside the entrance — since the Dakota is even more famous as the home of another composer – John Lennon.
And if you “dream” for a truly unique American musical experience – just cross the Hudson River and visit Hoboken where there’s the home of a famous man whose name is associated with American music. This time not to see the birthplace of a singer – Frank Sinatra – but to see the home of a composer – the composer of the great American classic song, “I Dream of Jeanie” (who lived in today’s barely standing, dilapidated building) — the home of America’s great mid 19th-century composer, Stephen Foster – if it’s still there.
Unlike London’s composers’ homes — homes of great composers who lived in Manhattan are difficult to find – since Manhattan displays very few historical plaques. Let’s face it – the British are famous for their maintaining plaque – on their historical homes – and much to the dismay of their dentists – on their teeth, too.