Monday, 21 November 2016

Music of the Spheres: an Earth-dweller’s guide to The Planets

On Saturday, 26 November 2016, Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra – joined by the ladies of the Cheltenham Bach Choir – will perform a quite magical programme entitled From the Seas to the Skies at Cheltenham Town Hall. The final work of the evening has become one of the most famous and popular compositions of the last century – but, although it is so familiar, there is always someone (I hope) for whom it is not; and – as I discovered, doing a little preliminary research to inform my review (as is my wont) – there is always something new to be learned about it.

Approaching the work in this way, with an open mind, I trust the following brief preamble will rub off on those who consider themselves ‘afraid’ of, or unsuited to, such ‘classical’ music (especially the more ‘modern’ sort) – who may judge it is not to their taste… – and convince them that this entrancing composition can be their gateway to a new universe of sound. I truly believe that, in giving it a chance, they will not be disappointed!

A new musical language…
Although the score still sounds incredibly thrilling, fresh, and modern, Cheltenham-born Gustav Holst’s “Suite for Large Orchestra”, The Planets, was completed one hundred years ago, at the height – or, in reality, the darkest depths – of World War I.

In some ways – especially as the constituent pieces have as much astrological inspiration as astronomical – they can be heard as individual orchestral tone poems (or, as Holst himself described them, “a series of mood pictures”) mirroring Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages of man’. This is why the movements are not ordered musically as the celestial bodies are physically – and why they have titles encapsulating philosophical theories about how the planets govern our lives: for example, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity – which, incidentally, has at its core a tune that will be rousingly familiar to all!

As well as the enduring relevance of such spiritual concepts, I think these pieces continue to influence – and have meaning for – us in three principal ways. Firstly (remembering that Pluto was only discovered in 1930, four years before Holst’s death), as we develop ever more sophisticated technologies – enabling us to learn ever more about our solar system and beyond, and to locate worlds that may harbour other sentient beings – we grow increasingly fascinated with that expanding universe. Additionally, as children, mesmerized by the night sky (as our ancestors were), we dream of exploring the space around us – hence the enduring attraction of film series such as Star Trek and Star Wars. Then, as adults – or just bigger kids! – we seek to understand our relevance, our importance, to the cosmos itself; to discover our place within it (just as Holst did). And finally – as ‘universal’ music in more ways than one – The Planets [pdf] provides us with a key to understanding the ideas at the heart of such science-fiction: meaning that it is no coincidence that the entry of Darth Vader to the strains of John Williams’ The Imperial March is not a million light-years away from the appearance of Mars, the Bringer of War…!

This is not to accuse Williams of any form of ‘borrowing’: merely to demonstrate Holst’s uncanny genius in producing seven uniformly impressive and inspirational pieces of music that not only fit together perfectly; but, individually, in all their contrasts of speed, volume and emotion, clearly convey their meaning – from the terrors of mechanized bloodshed to the mysteries of silence – evoking similar responses, similar passions, in all of those who listen: thereby creating a new musical language fit for our technological age, whether at war or at peace.

I would suggest, therefore, that if you already admire such soundtracks – and I would argue that Williams has created some of the very greatest – then you will adore Holst’s! And you won’t even need George Lucas or Steven Spielberg to provide the visuals – this is music that explodes with its very own special effects. Close your eyes, and lose yourself in your own private planetarium; or picture yourself as Han Solo making the Kessel Run!

Like Williams, Holst understood that to create such impact, he required as large an orchestra as he could muster: with not only enough brass to pin you back in your seat, but percussion that you will feel pounding through the soles of the thickest boots! He also appreciated that space is mostly empty – and, although other composers before him had tried, this is the first ‘classical’ work that truly fades out, rather than ends: an offstage ladies choir drifting slowly to the most beauteous, heart-stopping silence.

Postscript: a good omen…?
On Friday, 25 November 2016, low in the eastern pre-dawn sky, the thin, waning crescent moon will come extremely close to “the king of all planets”, Jupiter. Although this may not bring “jollity”, as such, it should still be spectacular to witness (should our autumnal weather behave itself). Hopefully, it will also prove to be a blessing – a harbinger of success – for the following day’s performance!

From Cheltenham…, the pair will be visible in the dawn sky, [the moon] rising at 03:10 (GMT) – 4 hours and 34 minutes before the Sun – and reaching an altitude of 29° above the south-eastern horizon before fading from view as dawn breaks at around 07:17…. The pair will be too widely separated to fit within the field of view of a telescope, but will be visible to the naked eye or through a pair of binoculars.

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