48 hours in New York State for Music Nerds

The Copland House in Peekskill

Pack your bags.  Take a weekend to explore.  There are obscure and fascinating destinations for music history geeks sprinkled throughout New York State.  I’ve touched on some of these before, but here they are, laid out for your next road trip.

 Stop 1: Saranac Lake, New York, a four and a half hour drive east of Rochester.

 In this small town, deep in the Adirondacks, Bela Bartok produced some of his masterworks, including his Concerto for Orchestra.   The bungalow where he composed that is not open to the public, but you CAN drive by (it’s behind 32 Park Avenue) and you CAN step inside visit the little cabin where he spent the last summer of this life, writing his third piano concerto and viola concerto.    The cabin is tiny.  Bartok called it a “hut.”  Why Saranac Lake?  His doctor sent him there to cure him of leukemia.  Call the local historical society in advance; someone will meet you there, unlock it, and show you around.


Take a coffee break at the funky Blue Moon CafĂ© downtown, or dine at the Red Fox Restaurant, which aims to be more upscale and gets consistently good reviews.  Then drive a few blocks away to the Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage at 11 Stevenson Lane. 

Stop 2:  The Stevenson Cottage

The author of Treasure Island wrote verse  that’s been set by hundreds of composers such as George Butterworth, Reynaldo Hahn, and Ned Rorem.  Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, based on Stevenson poetry, are to die for. This modest cottage will seem palatial compared to the Bartok Cabin, and it offers much more to see, including scorch marks on the mantelpiece where the writer set – and forgot - his burning cigarettes.


 Stay overnight in Saranac Lake or drive about an hour and a half south to Bolton Landing, New York for your next adventure.

 Stop 3 : Sembrich Museum

 In many ways, Marcella Sembrich was the RenĂ©e Fleming of the late 19th century.   This Polish diva sang at the Met and loved to summer in the Adirondacks.  She built a teaching studio on the shores of Lake George in 1924 and welcomed singers from Juilliard and the Curtis Institute.  This studio is now open to the public.  It’s been years since I was there, but as I remember it, the space is full of memorabilia from the Golden Age of Opera: tiaras, glittering gowns, and accolades from a career that spanned fifty years.  You may hear her voice, crackly and distant, captured on old discs and floating out of hidden speakers.  You’ll see paintings, sculptures, music, and autographed photographs of Sembrich’s contemporaries, including Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Puccini, and Mahler.   It’s a time capsule for music lovers in an incomparable setting.


Lake George is a major tourist destination with eateries for every taste.  Take your pick.  Take a break, and then drive three hours south to Peekskill, New York.

 Stop 4: Aaron Copland House

I’ve written about this inspiring place before.  Aaron Copland’s home stands pretty much as he left it.  It’s simple, homey, and nestled deep in the woods along the Hudson River.   Copland’s books sit on the shelves.  A photograph shows him and Rochester composer David Diamond sitting together at his grand piano.  You’ll see quirky gifts from neighbors and Boy Scout troops and famous musicians throughout with sketches and letters mounted on the walls.  The gardens are maintained by volunteers.

You have to make an appointment in advance to see the house, but the director is welcoming and, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet a composer-in-residence.

Peekskill, New York is about five hours southeast of Rochester.

Happy exploring!

Next: music geeks go to Pennsylvania!

Please send your music history desinations to classical@wxxi.org.