Insider Guides: Music of the Lakes and Mountains

The stunning scenery, history and culture of Europe’s lakes, mountains, rivers and cities has inspired many musicians throughout history. From classical composers, to folk performers and pop artists – there is a rich musical heritage which is ripe for exploration during your holiday.

Blue rivers and film noir

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A statue of Strauss in Vienna

During the 19th Century Johann Straus II helped to popularise the waltz in Vienna. ‘The Blue Danube’, probably the composer’s most famous composition was written to celebrate the river that flows across Austria. Originally premiered as a choral piece ‘The Blue Danube’ did not initially receive a warm reception but is highly regarded today with Austrians treating it as an unofficial national anthem. Every year ‘The Blue Danube’ concludes the New Year’s Day concert in Vienna.

Explore more: Treasures of the Danube >

Following the end of the second world war, Vienna was brutally damaged and under allied occupation. This set the scene for Carol Reed’s 1949 film, ‘The Third Man’ starring Orson Welles. The unique film score was composed by Vienna local, Anton Karas who used a distinctive, stringed folk instrument, the zither, to create the unsettling atmosphere of the film. Reed, originally met Karas at a welcome party to Vienna in 1948 and was so impressed with the music he heard that he quickly asked the musician to become involved with his film. ‘The Third Man’ later inspired glam-rock band, Ultravox to write their famous pop song, ‘Vienna’ in the 1980s.

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Lakes and Legends

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The William Tell paddle steamer on Lake Lucerne

Gioachino Rossini was an Italian composer but is best remembered for his operatic, retelling of the Swiss legend, William Tell. ‘The William Tell Overture’ was popularised in part due to its use as the theme to ‘Lone Ranger’ TV and radio serials. But this frenetic piece of music easily captures the high adventure of its titular hero. William Tell was a revolutionary, 14th Century figure who was sentenced to shoot an apple off his son’s head as punishment for his crimes. The Swiss continue to celebrate William Tell as a national hero, even naming a paddle steamer after him.

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Giuseppe Verdi composed part of his famous opera, ‘La Traviata’ while staying in Cadenabbia on Lake Como. And Maria Callas, the influential, 20th century opera singer, who herself starred as Violleta in adaptions of ‘La Traviata’ was known for her regular holidays to Sirmione on Lake Garda. But perhaps the most significant contribution of the Italian lakes to the world’s musical heritage is the modern violin. Gasparo De Salo, was born in Salo on Lake Garda in 1540. A gifted craftsman - it’s claimed that he developed the violin into the shape it has today. It’s easy to see how such a stunningly beautiful setting such as the Italian lakes can inspire such creativity.

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Salzburg is synonymous with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the city’s most famous son. But we’ll let you into a little secret - half an hour east of Salzburg at the northern end of Lake Wolfgang is the charming village of St Gilgen, also known as 'the Mozart village' because of its close association with the composer’s family. Here you’ll be able to explore the Mozart memorial house, fountains dedicated to Mozart and his mother, and the parish church with its countless connections to the Mozart family.

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Further along the lake is the village of St Wolfang, well known for the Im Weissen Rössl (the White Horse Inn) which was immortalised in the musical comedy of the same name. Written in 1930 by Hans Müller with music by Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz the musical told the story of a head waiter who is madly in love with the recently widowed owner of the inn. Regular operettas and classical music concerts are performed in the village throughout the summer.

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In the hall of the mountain king

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A typical street in Bergen - the home of Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway to a father of Scottish descent and a mother who was a music teacher. Perhaps Norway’s most famous composer, his works include ‘Piano Concerto in A minor’ and the incidental music for Henrik Ibsen's play ‘Peer Gynt’. His music was strongly influenced by the stunning Norwegian landscapes and the way of life of the local people.

Troldhaugen, the summer home of Grieg and his wife is one of Norway’s premier tourist attractions. About five miles south of Bergen, Grieg lived and worked here every summer for over 20 years. Today the house, Grieg’s cabin, and his tomb are all carefully preserved while the Edvard Grieg Museum and Troldsalen concert hall, which seats an audience of two hundred, continue to celebrate the artist’s work.

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Timeless traditions

Traditional folk performances are sadly declining and are more often than not limited to folk festivals and tourist events. However, these colourful occasions are well worth watching if you have the opportunity. Folk music performances are a fun-filled spectacle, often accompanied by colourful costumes and dancing.

In Slovenia, folk music is characterised by choral singing groups. Slavko Avsenik, a Slovenian folk musician helped to popularise traditional Slovenian music during the 20th Century. His use of the accordion gave his songs a distinctive polka feel and made him a Slovenian cultural icon. Bohinj hosts a yearly folk music festival in mid-may providing a fascinating flavour of traditional alpine music.

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In researching this article I accidentally stumbled upon the band Edelweiss, an Austrian electronica group who incorporate elements of traditional alpine music (such as yodelling) into popular dance songs. It demonstrates the timeless nature of the music of the lakes and mountains. It is impressive that such traditional music can be repurposed so dramatically for a contemporary audience. And it is a prime example of the versatility and diversity of music that the lakes and mountains have inspired in artists throughout the centuries.

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