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Top Vacation Destinations for Classical Music Lovers: Villa d'Este

We are on the home stretch here at Miami University! With the end of the semester rapidly approaching, I hear talks about summer and vacation plans with friends and colleagues. So I started thinking: why not write my next blog post on desired travel destinations that are inspired by musical works?

To me, performing works that are based on a particular landmark or destination and then having the opportunity to visit the site are interesting phenomena to me. The questions that one can ask are endless: what did the composer have in mind when writing it? What certain aspects of the place did the composer choose to highlight? How is that communicated through the music? What are some similarities and differences between the music and its source of inspiration?

Today, I want to share a place that I have always wanted to visit: Villa d’Este, a villa located in Tivoli, right outside of Rome, Italy. This prestigious landmark has been designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage site, which has stringent criteria in its selection process. I first learned about this idyllic place when I first studied Liszt’s Le Jeux d’eau Villa d’Este (The Fountains of Villa d’Este) a few years ago. At the end of this post, I included an excerpt of my performance at Miami University (2 minute video) earlier last month along with photos of the villa, so do check it out!

The Fountains of Villa d’Este is part of a large collection of pieces, Années de pèlerinage, or Years of Travel, in which Liszt describes as attempts to “portray in music a few of [my] strongest sensations and most lively impressions” of his various travels—making connections with history, nature, and poetry. Think of it as a musical journal where he documented the places that he performed.

For Liszt, Villa d’Este was a place that inspired the creativity within him. During the 1870s, the composer spent a lot of time at the villa, which was inhabited by his friend, Cardinal Gustav Adolf Hoholohe, who made significant efforts in restoring the previously neglected area to attract artists and musicians to visit and perform. In Liszt’s piece, the composer evokes the tranquil rippling of the fountains with his innovative use of tone color and blend of harmonies. One can also see Liszt's devotion to his faith (wanted to be a priest as a teenager) as he inserted a quotation from the Gospel of John (John 4:14) in the middle of the piece: “But the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” I am always fascinated with how progressive this piece was for its time—inspiring future Impressionistic composers such as Debussy and Ravel to write water music. He certainly shattered the unfair illusion of writing only “crowd-pleaser” works!

A brief history on this landmark: the villa was commissioned by the d’Este family, most notably, Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este in the 16th century. The d’Este family had built a reputation of being major art patrons throughout the Renaissance period. When designing the villa, they were particularly interested in focusing on classical Roman antiquity. One can see this preference when looking at the various sculptures, statues, and gardens.

Tivoli has always been a favorite place to visit during the summer since Ancient Roman times because of the town’s high altitude and cooler temperatures. Today, the villa is a popular tourist spot—there is a classy hotel located nearby on Lake Como that has all of the amenities that one could imagine! I hope you consider Villa d’Este as your next vacation destination!

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