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10 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by the Solar System

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

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We thought, until 2006, that there were nine planets in our solar system but one which was discovered only in 1930, Pluto, was demoted to the lesser status of dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union, so now there are only eight. The solar system is a fascinating place and man has sent many spacecraft to various planets and their moons to learn more about them and to discover if extraterrestrial life exists.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791

Painting of Mozart at Melk Abbey, Austria.

Painting of Mozart at Melk Abbey, Austria.

1 Mozart. Symphony no 41 'Jupiter'

If there were ever a symphony to uplift the soul, Mozart's Jupiter has what it takes.

As his final symphony, Mozart had honed the genre to a high polish. In the genial key of C major, the first movement sails along unhindered, free and easy, with hardly a care in the world. Only the development section (the middle part of the first movement) is of a more serious disposition, with turns and twists in the minor key. Lightness of touch is, however, is not to mistaken for being without discipline and tightness. The absence of clarinets allows a certain amount of breeze to waft, fanning the auditory senses.

The lyricism of the second movement foretells Beethoven's own slow movement style, long lines of simple pared down beauty enhanced with rivulets of running scales. The melody is allowed to speak for itself, no heavy make-up clogging up a fresh, clear complexion though there is the odd furrowed brow, Mozart leading the music down a pathway of pensive thoughts before returning to soft daylight and all is well again.

The minuet and trio is as elegant as anything Mozart ever wrote for a third movement, and the trio has a certain amount of drama, full bodied in a minor key diversion.

Lastly a strong simple statement by the strings widens out into runs, liberally distributed all over the orchestra. Mozart treats us to wonderfully lucid counterpoint and scales abound against a clear dotted rhythm.

As a symphonic swansong Mozart's Jupiter Symphony could not have better summarised his impeccable writing. Alive with ideas, it's thoroughly captivating,, complex without any trace of force, effortlessly playful within its carefully crafted framework, bright C major chords closing the book on an irreplaceable legacy.

Allen Vizzutti 1952 -

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2 Allen Vizzutti. The Carnival of Venus

Considered one of the most challenging works for solo trumpet, virtuoso trumpeter and composer Allen Vizzutti based The Carnival of Venus on the folk song The Carnival of Venice.

He's not the first (and probably not the last) composer to have used this source for showing off prodigious talent - Bottesini's variations for double bass put this melody through mind boggling paces, as did Paganni, and Vizzutti's composition has much the same effect.

In actual fact, the song has its origins in Germany, not Italy, almost identical to Mein Hut, der hat drei Ecken (My Hat Has Three Corners) and is one of those songs everyone knows and it's one of those where children can do actions to the words.

After an elaborate introduction, leaving you in no doubt about the breath taking virtuosity to follow, a relatively simple exponent of the tune comes in. After that, sit back and be prepared to marvel. How anyone can make their lips work that fast and coordinate the with fingers pressing valves, well, one can only wonder.

One could say it's a calling card to present to any impresario or agent. I'm glad to say The Carnival of Venus also demonstrates the smooth lyrical qualities a trumpet can display, as well as the frightening heights of aspiration budding trumpeters could tentatively set as their pinnacle of technical achievement - and I'm not only referring to that ear splitting top note just before the fabulous end. This is a great hoot to leave you with a massive smile on your face

Alan Hovhaness 1911-2000

Memorial to Hovhaness in Whittemore Park, Arlington, USA

Memorial to Hovhaness in Whittemore Park, Arlington, USA

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3 Alan Hovhaness. Saturn

The cantata Saturn was written in 1971 with a libretto by Hovhaness himself.1

At one time Hovhanes pursued astronomy as a career but the lure of composition overtook. However, the night sky held his fascination and many works of this prolific composer are orientated to towards the cosmos.2

Saturn is a trio for mezzo soprano, clarinet and piano. There is a definite eastern and modal flavour to the work - he was of Armenian-American parentage - and interested in the part of the world his father came from and later further east to India and Japan.

As the bringer of old age, the music is mystical, the background atmosphere colour-washed by the piano. The solitary and lonely years that so often define our final years are expressed by the clarinet, dominating the night sky with monologues, mourning the last chapter in human existence.

Philip Glass 1937 -

Photograph of Philip Glass in 2007.

Photograph of Philip Glass in 2007.

4 Philip Glass. Kepler

In 2009, Linz, Austria, was the city of culture. As part of the festivities, Glass was commissoned by city and its Landstheatre to write an opera to acknowledge one of Linz's most famed sons, Johannes Kepler. Glass teamed up with librettist Marina Winkel who wrote the text in both German and Latin.3

Kepler was a deeply religious individual, though his Lutheran fervour did not prevent him carrying out impirical research into planetary orbits. His findings were published with references to the Bible supporting his theory that God had created a geometrical plan for the universe. Following the stance taken by the unfortunate Galileo who steadfastly professed that planets orbited the sun, Kepler rightly claimed they did so but not in perfect circles, but ellipses. The observations subsequently became known as Kepler's Laws.4

The prologue to Kepler is trademark Glass, insistent chugging strings, the favoured woodblock also making a cameo appearance. I hear it as Kepler's mind working, constantly going over his thoughts and perfecting his experiments.

That a composer who relies heavily on rhythm for cohesion should be interested in a brilliant mathematician and astronomer such as Kepler comes as no surprise, dogged and repetitive as such as character must have been to arrive at the radical conclusion that the sun was not at the exact centre of the solar system. A little to one side, the stretched planetary orbits are stretched out due to the sun's gravitational force.

To read about classical music inspired by the sun click on the link.

Johannes Kepler 1571-1630

Engraving of Kepler.

Engraving of Kepler.

Gustav Holst 1874 - 1934

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5 Holst. The Planets. Mars The Bringer of War, Uranus the Magician

The symphonic collection of Holst's The Planets is probably one of the most popular pieces of classical music.Jupiter found fame by the addition of words, I vow to thee my country.

All Holst's descriptions of the planets are exceptional, seemingly to effortlessly turn from the deeply reflective Saturn, slow ad ponderous, to the fleet-footed Mercury, sparkly and uncatchable, choosing a large orchestra with organ chorus to colour each planet. Neptune alone, seeing out the suite, brings in an off-stage women's choir, fading out, as if the view becomes more and more obscured, its secret mysticism retained forever, unreachable.

Whichever planet captures your imagination the most, who can fail to recognise the relentless angry marching of Mars, The Bringer of War, dissonant and uncompromising, the ruthless ostinato in the col legno (played with the wood of the bow) strings and timpani and harp? Mars roars, then the ostinato changes to a regular four in a bar, and a swashbuckling march of supreme confidence ensues: Mars has no concept of defeat. An untidy scrap breaks out in the whole orchestra, eager to shout its battle cry, slapped down by vociferous suppression by means of a low note, a great foot stamping on his foot soldiers, keeping order in the ranks.

Now subjugated, the army reassembles taking up their positions, the side drum partly reiterates the opening ostinato, they are getting ready for the next battle. Tension builds by means of a deadly swing to the beat, as if swiping dummy strokes with the sword, limbering up for the real deal. The army marches forward, a huge square formation, almost robotic in its frighteningly focussed malevolence. Once again the army unleashes its battle cry. A collective spear is raised, and thrust down in an explosion of defy-me-if-you-dare on the last bloodcurldling note.

Where in Holst's psyche this darkest of dark places emerged is anyone's guess, but you cannot but wonder what shocking nightmares were at play. This music is petrifying; if it were played to the opposition on an actual battlefield, they'd be terrified.

The shy Holst conceived the suite in 1913, before the great war, and Mars was the first planet to be set down on paper in 1914. If you think Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, also written in 1913, is controversial for its sacrificial subject, then Mars surely must also be regarded with similar eyes, the slaying of one's enemy without mercy.

It's easy, because we've been brought up with it along with film scores such as Bernard Hermann's Psycho, to accept it as almost normal. But it is far from the genial middle class environment of Holst's childhood Cheltenham.5 And the most striking thing is that Holst never strays from tonality and uses, for the most part, customary harmonies and rhythms. That, for me is the most sinister part of Mars, the conjuring up of the most terrible and fearsome portrayal of man's murderous lust within relatively standard conventions.

Uranus the magician, on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. It might start in stern mode, four hard-nosed notes, but that's only to draw your attention to the ensuing performance. It soon gives way to a mischievous fairy dance though they might be wearing clogs. That too is set to wrong foot you, for heavy tumbling and marching livens things up. The spritely instrumentation - high woodwind and low brass and percussion alternate then returns to the heavily orchestrated march which ends in a great sweeping flourish.

But that's not the real end. Out of the silence Uranus remerges, peeping behind the curtain, the pointed four notes make another appearance leading to a long searingly glorious chord, so exquisite, Holst repeats it lower in pitch and quieter, just so we can experience its heady wonder once more, then imperceptibly a third time as the Uranus magics himself out of sight.

Who can fail to recognise the relentless angry marching of Mars, the god of war, dissonant and uncompromising?

Uranus the Magician, on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. It might start in stern mode, four hard-nosed notes, but that's only to draw your attention to the ensuing performance. It soon gives way to a swaggering fairy dance though they might be wearing clogs. That too is set to wrong foot you, for heavy tumbling and marching livens things up. The spritely instrumentation - high woodwind and low brass and percussion alternate then return to the heavily orchestrated march which ends in a great sweeping flourish.

But that's not the real end. Out of the silence Uranus remerges, peeping behind the curtain, the pointed four notes make another appearance leading to a long searingly glorious chord, so exquisite, Holst repeats it lower in pitch, quieter, just so we can experience its heady wonder once more, then imperceptibly a third time as Uranus magics himself out of sight.