Pluto, the Renewer

Pluto
An image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons flyby.

 

When Gustav Holst finished his seven-movement orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32 in 1917, Pluto had yet to be discovered. By the time the distant celestial body was spotted in 1930, four years before Holst’s death, the composer had grown ambivalent about The Planets, believing that the work’s popularity had unfairly overshadowed his later compositions.

Fast-forward to 2000, when conductor Kent Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra commissioned British composer and administrator of the Holst foundation Colin Matthews to “complete” The Planets with a six minute movement entitled, Pluto, the Renewer. Matthews, who admits that he had “mixed feelings” about the project, was up against a series of significant challenges. Holst’s masterwork feels complete as its final movement, Neptune, the Mystic  fades into intergalactic eternity. Additionally, Holst’s music is more concerned with the astrological properties of the planets than with astronomy. Pluto, three billion miles away on the edge of our solar system, remains astrologically fuzzy.

In the end, Matthews’ music may be as superfluous to Holst’s suite as Pluto (reclassified as a “dwarf planet” in 2006) is to the solar system. Still, Pluto, the Renewer is interesting music that deserves to be heard, especially in light of last week’s stunning images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. At times, Matthews music echoes the colorful orchestration and otherworldly atmosphere of Holst’s original score. Similar sounds can be heard in John Williams’ haunting 2001 film score for the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Listen here and here).

  • Find this recording on iTunes, Amazon
  • Listen to Gustav Holst’s The Planets here.

Mars, the Bringer of War

MarsThis evening you may want to grab your telescope, head outside, and look into the southeastern night sky. Mars is making its closest approach in six years today, coming within 57.4 million miles of earth. Last month, NASA’s Curiosity Rover captured pictures of the earth as a bright speck in the Martian sky.

From Ray Bradbury’s 1950 collection of short stories, The Martian Chronicles, to current discoveries of possible water on Mars, the red planet has long been a source of fascination. In ancient Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war. Astrological associations with Mars were the inspiration for the first movement of The Planets, Op. 32, a suite by English composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1935). Here is Mars, the Bringer of War performed by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony. Pay attention to the flow and rhythmic feel. Can you tell how many beats are in each measure? The answer may surprise you.

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Holst wrote this ominous music in 1914 at the onset of the First World War. It drives forward in an unrelenting 5/4 time (1-2-3-4-Five). It’s that last beat which makes the music feel slightly automated and unnatural, reflecting the blind insanity of a society marching towards self destruction. The opening of the piece calls for col legno, a sound effect in which the wood of the bow is hit into the strings. At 2:13 notice Holst’s use of the euphonium horn (tenor tuba). The trumpet fanfares which follow suggest the age-old sounds of battle.

Mars may have reminded you of the Imperial March from John Williams’ film score for Star Wars. Interestingly, both begin in the key of G minor, which has been associated with unease, conflict and tragedy going back to MozartThe Planets closes with the ethereal Neptune the Mystic . Compare Neptune to this excerpt from Williams’ 2001 film score for A.I. and consider all the other atmospheric Hollywood scores which draw upon these sounds.

[quote]Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.[/quote]

[quote]Do you ever wonder if–well, if there are people living on the third planet?’ ‘The third planet is incapable of supporting life,’ stated the husband patiently. ‘Our scientists have said there’s far too much oxygen in their atmosphere.[/quote]

-The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Grumiaux’s Cosmic Bach

NASA included a "Golden Record" on the Voyager interstellar mission.
NASA included a “Golden Record” on the Voyager interstellar mission.

When NASA launched the unmanned Voyager spacecraft in 1977, it included a Golden Record featuring a sampling of music from Earth. One of the recording’s excerpts is J.S. Bach’s Gavotte en rondeaux from Partita No. 3 in E Major, performed by legendary Franco-Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux (1921-1986). Regarding the record, astronomer Carl Sagan said:

[quote]The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.[/quote]

Voyager 1 continues to drift into the vast cosmic expanse. Yesterday it was 127.19 AU (1.903×1010 km) from Earth. In 40,000 years it will be within 1.6 lightyears of Gliese 445, a star in the constellation Camelopardalis, which flickers faintly in our northern sky.

Following up on last Friday’s post, The Elegant Artistry of Arthur Grumiauxlet’s listen to a few of Grumiaux’s exquisite Bach recordings.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Partita No. 3 in E Major[/typography]

We’ll start off with the Preludio and Gavotte en rondeaux from the E Major Partita. A Partita is an instrumental suite of Baroque dances. While some violinists take the Preludio at breakneck speed, Grumiaux’s noble and slightly slower interpretation allows every note to speak.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Concerto in A minor[/typography]

Here is the complete Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041. Notice the sense of a heartbeat in the ostinato bass in the second movement. The final movement is a gigue:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Concerto for Two Violins[/typography]

Herman Krebbers plays the second violin part in this 1978 recording with Les Solistes Romands and conductor Arpad Gerecz:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord[/typography]

Here Grumiaux joins Christianne Jaccotte for Bach’s six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord:

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