Music of the Heavenly Spheres (Part 2) — Holst, Haydn, Handel and More…

Apollo with his famous lyre is the Greek god of music. This son of Zeus was also closely associated with the Sun and is often assumed to be the Sun god Helios by a different name. In other polytheistic circles, none of the gods of music in Hindu, Norse, Japanese or Egyptian mythologies were associated with celestial bodies. But the Greeks, at least, made the connection between music and the cosmos.

Yesterday, part one of “Music of the Heavenly Spheres,” traversed the world of modern music honoring the planets, stars, novas, quasars and other astrophysical objects that make up our universe. Today we look at the music of centuries past and modern orchestral pieces that were inspired by the vast vacuum of space.

Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” ("Thus Spoke Zarathustra") was an homage to Friedrich Nietzche’s famous book of the same name, which had nothing to do with astronomy. But it became one of the most recognized songs to be associated with the cosmos after its use as the opening theme for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"Zarathustra” is probably the soundtrack that first comes to mind when daydreaming whimsically of the Milky Way, perhaps mingled with Alexander Courage’s theme to Star Trek, or John Williams’ award-winning scores to the Star Wars films.

But these modern composers had nothing on their brethren from the last four centuries.

Gustav Holst’s gorgeous 1918 suite “The Planets” is likely the most compelling tribute to Earth’s stellar brethren of the last millennium. There is a caveat. Holst drew his inspiration less from the planets themselves than from the Roman deities for which they are named. But the suite does evoke a certain understanding of the dyadic nature of the cosmos, simultaneously filled with chaos and beauty.

From the clashing tumult of “Mars: The Bringer of War” (clearly influential in the scores by Hans Zimmer in countless historical action flicks from Gladiator to The Last Samurai) to the rich, flowing melodies of “Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity.” From the light, lilting airs of “Venus: Bringer of Peace” to the boisterous crescendos of “Uranus: The Magician,” Holst scores the soundtrack to our solar system's cosmic dance magnificently.

Only Pluto was left out. Perhaps Holst foresaw Pluto’s coming loss of status as a planet; more likely, he just didn't have time. Even though it was discovered four years prior to his death, that was over a decade after he had completed “The Planets.”

Luckily for Pluto, in 2000 the Berlin Philharmonic commissioned British composer Colin Matthews to write a movement to round out the suite. Pluto was demoted from planet status soon after its completion. The Philharmonic also commissioned movements for four asteroids, including Ceres, the largest in the asteroid belt, and recently dubbed “dwarf planet” alongside Pluto.

But Holst wasn’t the first to include odes to the heavenly spheres in his oeuvre.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s 1777 opera “Il Mondo Della Luna” tells the story of a devious astronomer who cons a nobleman into believing there is a society on the moon. George Frideric Handel’s “Total Eclipse,” an aria from the opera “Samson,” compares a solar eclipse to the protagonist’s loss of sight.

The Jupiter Symphony, Mozart’s final work, was not named as such until after Mozart’s death and, in fact, it has nothing to do with the planet Jupiter at all. It is named such by those who thought that the final minutes of the symphony were so complex they could only be understood by the Roman god-king Jupiter.

Bach never wrote about his inspiration from the stars, but when some of his most famous pieces are blended with recordings of wind from Mars, as Kelvin Miller did in 1998, it becomes a cosmic hit. Miller transformed wind measurements from the Pathfinder probe into sounds and weaved them through some of Bach’s more memorable pieces in the album “Winds of Mars.”

Several other modern composers have built on the legacy of these giants of classical music in paying tribute to astronomy. Peter Eotvos composed the erratic and sinister, yet strangely compelling, symphony “The Cosmos.” And Cornell professor Roberto Sierra wrote a full-orchestral piece inspired by Saturn entitled “Anillos,” which means rings in Spanish.

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