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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 and is 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

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.

Henryk Gorecki 1933-2010

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6 Gorecki. Symphony no 2 'Copernicus'

Gorecki's second symphony is a work to wonder at. Mystical and mysterious with recurrent violence and a Latin text from the Book of Psalms and Copernicus' own treatise, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, it celebrates the 500th anniversary of the astonomer's birth.5

The choral symphony is in two movements, the first concerns the mayhemic tumult of the cosmos. Thumping percussion violently clenches hold at the start interspersed by welcome stiller episodes. Swarms of trombones, then trumpets enter in frenzied rage. Weight is being thrown around, strident and forceful. The choir joins the percussive dissonance to end the movement.

Grateful respite come in the form of the Deus from the bass. He is the mystic overseer bringing with him an aura of calm in a hymn to birth and eternity. An ascending soprano takes over, the real woman's touch bringing a much needed peace out of the chaos. The cosmos is gliding towards harmony and order, coming in and out of focus.

Finally a dawn descends shimmering vibration like many particles of dust swirling through space.

Nicolas Copernicus 1473 - 1543

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Lord Berners 1883 -1950

Lord Berners and Cecil Beaton painting at Ashcombe House, Wiltshire, UK.

Lord Berners and Cecil Beaton painting at Ashcombe House, Wiltshire, UK.

7 Berners. Triumph of Neptune

There aren't many aristocrats who wrote for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes to the pound but Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt Wilson, who inherited the title of Lord Berners in 1918, is one.6

That the Triumph of Neptune is Berners most famous work is an understatement since it's rarely heard these days when something rather more refined is expected of our excursions to the ballet.

It would have suited Sir Thomas Beecham down to the ground for one of his selection of 'lollipops' as he liked to term them, inconsequential morceaux with which to tickle an audience's fancy at the end of a concert and there's plenty to chose from here.

It's a slap stick getaway from the enfant terrible of ballet at the time, Stravinsky, and his divisive The Rite of Spring. With a twinkle in the eye Triumph of Neptune is a light hearted how do you do, polite society with an impish smile, dancing its merry way through an affable series of unsophisticated numbers.

One is reminded of the sort of thing Malcolm Arnold turned out, as in Tam O'Shanter, the relatively (I say that advisedly) serious music interrupted by the drunken singing of The Last Rose of Summer. A perfect antidote to the rigours of life.

Krzysztof Penderecki 1933 -

Photograph of Penderecki at the Festival of Stars in 2008.

Photograph of Penderecki at the Festival of Stars in 2008.

8 Penderecki. Kosmogonia

Another fine twentieth century Polish composer turned his head skywards and found inspiration from the heavens. As with the Gorecki he also brought a choir into the mix.

Unlike Gorecki who is pretty well grounded in convention, Penderecki demands considerable virtuosity and unconventional techniques from his musicians, chattering voices, trumpeters who must look askance at their parts. Rehearsal time must be quite considerable for Kosmgonia.

A patchwork of sounds, prepare to be thrown into a den of frightening musical squalor. Music rolled in filth, dredging the cosmos for any impurity that will stick to it. The language of iconic horror films. Penderecki's music including Utrenja and Polymorphia was used as part of the sound track for the film, The Shining starring Jack Nicholson. Can't say it comes as a surprise.

Joseph Haydn 1732-1809

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9 Haydn. Symphony 43 in E flat 'Mercury'

As with Mozart's Jupiter symphony, the title Mercury probably came from a nineteenth century publisher or promoter giving a rather unremarkable Haydn symphony a boost. After the Penderecki its almost a relief for the mundane to pass by relatively unnoticed.

Classed as one of Haydn's storm und drang symphonies, Mercury is lithe and does have some drive, led down the elaborately yet delicately decorated corridors. But it doesn't have the captivating start of some of the other symphonies grouped in this category, the Farewell for instance which attacks from the start making the audience take notice.

Hadyn's Mercury symphony is much more in the realm of background music, suited to playing whilst another activity is taking place, polite conversation almost a certainty.

Nevertheless it's not hard to imagine the liveried musicians playing Haydn's symphonies that he developed alongside Mozart during the Classical period, leaving it to Beethoven to complete the picture and lead the form into the Romantic era.

Lars Graugaard 1957 -

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10 Lars Graugaard. Venus

Reflecting his interest in the heavens, Danish composer Lars Graugaard also goes by the name Lars from Mars and is on the avant-garde spectrum of classical music.8

Having said that, Venus is not offensive to the ears as many dyed in the wool conservative listeners to classical music might presuppose. From the outset, the world is of an almost circular soundscape and a 'out there' pulsating reverberation courtesy of the double bass.

The solo violin, by contrast, is grounded in short motifs based around the open strings and recognisable conventional tonal figuration. In fact when you study the work carefully, much of it has its roots steeped in the familiar despite the inclusion of electronic oscillation. Recognisable scales and the double stopping (playing more than one note at once) from the violin are not far removed from mainstream repertory and are moulded into the core of the work.

The repetitive nature of the music, building to include the whole orchestra, then receding, recalls the clouds of sulphuric acid obscuring the planet's surface and its hostile carbon dioxide atmosphere.

The first in a set of four pieces, the other three being Book of Throws, Layers of Earth, and Three Places, Lars Graugaard explores the engagement of one's inner self to acoustic and electronic sound environments, homogenised and conspicuous, whether detached or captivated or on some transient plane.

Citations

1 Allmusic

2 Alan Hovhaness website

3 Dijo Saochian

4 Space.com

5 gustavholst.info

6 Boosey.com

7 Shellacophile, Youtube

8 Presto classical


© 2018 Frances Metcalfe

Comments

Reginald Thomas from Connecticut on March 12, 2019:

I will definitely continue to read your terms because they are nicely written and enjoyable to read. They are also very informative in some areas that I am not familiar with.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on March 12, 2019:

Thank you Reginald for your kind comments, greatly appreciated, and yes, it did take a lot of happy research but I so enjoy doing it.

Reginald Thomas from Connecticut on March 12, 2019:

Incredible amount of work you put into this article. Bravo!

Great performance examples. I enjoyed all of them.

Than you!

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on August 11, 2018:

Bonsoir Bede. Thank you for acknowledging how much research there is to do for an article like this - it takes ages! Holst's The Planets is certainly my favoured listening though some of the others definitely opened up my world. Always a good thing to expand out of my comfort zone. I've got to quite appreciate the Gorecki.

Bede from Minnesota on August 09, 2018:

Bonjour Frances- I appreciate the depth of your research in these descriptions. The Mozart and Haydn are altogether beautiful but not so cosmic; some of the other composers are rather too cosmic for my tastes. Holst captures something of the monumental quality of the planets & outer space.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on August 09, 2018:

Hello Flourish, Nearly all... yes one or two are a bit on the, let's say acquired taste side, especially the Penderecki Kosmogonia, but actually, having listened to them all many times I've got inside them and, although I might not want to listen to such music on a regular basis, have an understanding of why a composer might write such a work. But the Carnival of Venus is fun isn't it! Thanks for reading.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on August 09, 2018:

Hi Linda. When I researched this article I introduced myself to a whole lot of new pieces! That's what is so great about writing them, I learn so much ad it very satisfying to pass it on. Thanks for taking the trouble to read it.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 07, 2018:

I enjoyed nearly all of these, and the trumpet piece was especially unusual. Wonderful!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 07, 2018:

When I saw the title of this article in my notifications, I instantly thought of The Planets. I knew you would be introducing me to many other pieces, though, and I wasn't disappointed. Thank you very much for sharing all the information, Frances.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on August 07, 2018:

Hello Barbara. The Planets are the most well-known - by a long stretch - but I'm happy you're finding some of the others interesting. Once you've climbed the chaotic hump of the Gorecki, it settles down into a much more hymn-like state and is quite accessible.

Barbara Walton from France on August 06, 2018:

I'd heard of The Planets but that's about all. Listening to Kepler as I type, and enjoying it - hardly ever listen to classical music so you've achieved quite a lot with this article. Thank you for bringing these to my attention.