12 Composers Who Were Inspired (or Injured!) by Bicycles

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Sunday marks the 38th annual Five Boro Bike Tour, in which an estimated 32,000 cyclists have the streets of New York City all to themselves. The tour guides riders through 40 miles of the city's neighborhoods, from the South Bronx to Red Hook to St. George.

While we've previously considered the potential of Citibike to get New Yorkers to concerts on time, here are 12 more connections between classical music and cycling, including several composers who found inspiration (and injury) on two wheels.

1. "I seem to be absolutely born for the cycle," wrote Gustav Mahler, "and I've already reached the stage where all the horses avoid me, but I'm still not good at ringing my bell." He claimed that only cycling offered any relief from the chronic pain of his hemorrhoids.

2. The plot of the opera Fedora (1898), by Umberto Giordano included an abduction by bicycle (and a bicycle aria).

3. Poor Ernest Chausson (1855-99). The French composer died just as his career was starting flourish when he was tossed from his bike and he hit a stone wall head first.

4. When Edward Elgar, a keen biker, was knighted in 1904, he cycled 50 miles on his Royal Sunbeam to break the good news to his elderly father. The composer was given to pedaling gently around the Malvern Hills, in England, and frequently found musical inspiration while riding his bike, which he named "Mr. Phoebus."

5. Josef Strauss – son of Johann I and brother to Johann II – was an engineer as well as a composer, and inventor of the prototype of the modern street-cleaning vehicle. Not surprisingly, he composed a Velocipede Polka, whose bustling rhythms seem to evoke a brisk ride through Vienna.

6. 19th century British composer Stanislaus Elliot composed a Bicycle Sonata for piano, which the Monthly Musical Record politely said was “by no means bad.”

7. Chausson wasn't the only composer to experience the dangers of biking. Percy Grainger, who also played the piano, lost the tip of an index finger after working on a bicycle chain. Although Grainger himself hoped he would have to give up concerts and be able to focus on composing, his performance ability was not affected by this handicap.

8. San Francisco composer Flip Baber re-orchestrated the Nutcracker Suite for bike parts.

9. In 1906, Gustav Holst needed a break from work and took a four-week vacation to Algeria in 1906, during which he set off on a bike ride through the Sahara Desert. Among the musical fruits of his trip was the orchestral suite, Beni Mora.

10. In 1977, sound artist Richard Lerman put microphones into bicycle frames and recorded the results, which were intended to resemble Southeast Asian gamelan music. Four years later, Smithsonian Folkways recorded a "promenade version," which consisted of cyclists riding through the streets of Boston and Amsterdam with small amplifiers attached to each bike, picking up the sound of tuned spokes.


11. Ralph Vaughan Williams often collected folk songs by touring the countryside on his bicycle. He is also believed to have spent 18 months writing his Mass with the aid of a bike. In a letter to a friend in 1898, he gave a list of his ideal writing conditions: "good food, good drains and shops where one can mend bicycles."

12. The monster of bicycle music is Mauricio Kagel's Eine Brise (A Breeze), a 1996 piece for 111 cyclists, who ride in formation ringing their bells. Kagel, an experimental Argentinian composer, delighted in unconventional instruments and bizarre combinations. He described the 90-second piece as a "fleeting action for 111 cyclists: a musically enriched sport event in the open."