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Into a stranger cavern
Was Mendelssohn the first composer to be inspired by train travel?
I’ve been working on a commission for the Liverpool Biennial involving Edge Hill, the oldest passenger station in the world. The journey from Liverpool’s main station, Lime Street, out to Edge Hill is only about four minutes long but it takes you through historical tunnels and cuttings. They are banked and gouged in a way that reflects the enormous effort it took to carve out this line. The trains that stop at Edge Hill now are slow and local, only two or three carriages long. They crank themselves up with all the grumble and kerfuffle of the age of steam. For most of those four minutes you are in the dark, although there are regular slices of light. It’s rather like being celluloid run through a projector.
In 1830, just before this line opened, the twenty-one-year-old Mendelssohn came through Liverpool on his way back from Scotland, where he had visited Fingal’s Cave by steamer out of Mull. Mendelssohn was overwhelmed by seasickness on the trip but nonetheless inspired and set to his renowned “Hebrides(or Fingal’s Cave)” overture. His companion Karl Klingemann wrote a vivid account of the excursion:
“We were put out in boats and lifted by the hissing sea up the pillar stumps to the celebrated Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves surely never rushed into a stranger cavern – its many pillars made it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, and absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without.”
When Mendelssohn got to Liverpool, he walked the almost finished railway and persuaded a watchman to let him ride through a tunnel out to the dock. He travelled at the extraordinary speed of fifteen miles an hour which was, he wrote to his father, “a bit rough on my stomach”. He must have felt seasick all over again.
I don’t know whether Mendelssohn connected the two journeys but Fingal’s cave, with its basalt pillars and arched opening looks very much like a railway tunnel. Even if he didn’t do so consciously, the two connect themselves: being “put out”, the hiss and roar, the tunnel black and resounding and as yet without purpose, empty in the wide grey sea of the city.
People ask about the source of a poem as if it’s usually one thing. My experience is that it often comes from a form of repeated gesture. One thing reminds me of another and within this recognition lies a shared essence which I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to detect.
My aim is to have the poem enable the reader to find their own repetition of that gesture and so to enter something that they otherwise might not. It should be a rush into a stranger cavern, a visceral experience—so yes, a bit rough on the stomach. This is what makes Mendelssohn’s Overture so compelling. It’s not description but action, not a vision but a voyage.