Infinite space offers infinite inspiration. That’s because, in the immortal words of the late, great Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” So, as with almost every other playlist in this series, the number of potential inclusions is vast. Inevitably, here lies arbitrariness and exclusion—but I will pursue both with abandon.
I was the perfect age for Star Wars when it first came out: 7 in 1977. I even drew a degree of affinity with its universe from the simple fact that I shared a name with Luke Skywalker’s real name. Ever since, I’ve loved the thought of space adventures, though being a scientific and mathematical dunce meant that I could never relate to the jargon and gobbledegook. It was the sheer unbridled romance of it all, the lack of any apparent limitation to the powers of human imagination (apart from pesky things like thermodynamics laws, cosmic distances and the need for oxygen and water, of course). As a result, I’ve always kept an ear out for space music. Not to be confused with spaced music, naturally, although the way that some contemporary composers seem to set about writing for space, you could be forgiven for such a confusion.
When the Voyager space probe was first sent into space, someone at NASA had the brainwave of sending a golden disc of recordings to represent the best of us. It contained tracks of indigenous music from around the world (Gamelan music from Indonesia, percussion from Senegal, panpipes from Peru, chanting from the Navajo, ragas from India, and some classics like Louis Armstrong’s “Melancholy Blues” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Good”). But there was one composer who stood head and shoulders above the others, the only one with more than one track: J. S. Bach. He had three pieces. The combination was designed to impress alien life at human sophistication and civilisation. And frankly, I’m with them. When someone suggested having only Bach on the disc, renowned astronomer Carl Sagan dismissed the idea by saying, ‘That would just be showing off.’
So much for sending our music into space. But what of the music inspired by space? That’s the subject for this list. And to do this we must start with someone who wasn’t writing ‘space music’ per se at all.
Symphony No. 14 in D: I Allegro Assai
—William Herschel (1738-1822, German-British)
Matthias Bamert (conductor), London Mozart Players
Herschel was born Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel in Hanover, twenty years or so after the Elector of Hanover became George I of Great Britain. The two states were thus bound by deep political ties for well over a century and the cultural traffic between the two was almost constant. The great George Frederic Handel first visited London in 1710 and would move to take up official positions in 1717. Herschel would accompany his musician father to London four decades later at only 19. He quickly gained his own reputation as a good musician and held posts in various cities like Newcastle, Sunderland, and Bath. This symphony is rarely heard anymore but has a charm all of its own (on display in the first movement here).
So much for the day job. Herschel, together with his musician younger sister Caroline, was, in addition, an amateur astronomer. I say amateur, but that’s only because he wasn’t employed as such. The siblings were pretty remarkable scientists as well as internationally renowned telescope makers. William discovered the planet that would come to be known Uranus (from the Greek god of that name, whose name is derived from ouranoi meaning ‘heavens’) although he called it the Georgian star (after the king). Naturally, the French were having none of that name, so for a time it was actually called Herschel—which is why Caroline would make several discoveries of her own, including several comets and nebulae, and in fact, would become the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist and the first woman in England to hold a government position. Quite the family, then.
So despite this symphony not having a specific tie-in, there can be little doubt that its composer was inspired by gazing into the night sky.
Deep Field: 5. Earth Choir
—Eric Whitacre (1970- , American)
Eric Whitacre (conductor), Eric Whitacre Singers & Virtual Choir 5, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
We have met Eric Whitacre before in these lists (#7, Inexpressible Grief Expressed) and his choral music is a firm favourite. He goes in for lush melodies and rich, scrunchy harmonies which manage to stay on the right side of the sentimental (in case you’d not noticed so far, this is something I appreciate!). In astronomical terms a ‘deep field’ is a photograph of space taken with a long exposure in order to capture even the faintest of stars. These images have reached popular consciousness through the results beamed back from the Hubble Space Telescope and they are breath-taking even to the untrained eye.
Whitacre was commissioned in 2018 to write music for a Hubble-inspired IMAX film to be shown at various sites including the Smithsonian and Griffith Observatory. The suite of tracks works brilliantly in its own right, although you can get a sense of the scale and wonder even when viewing the footage on a small screen. Whitacre studiously avoids the clichés of a thousand sci-fi soundtracks while communicating with musical vocabulary that is entirely fitting, using a vast range of tones, including the barely audible. Close your eyes and be transported into deep space.
Polaris “Voyage for Orchestra” (2011)
—Thomas Adès (1971, British)
Thomas Adès (conductor), London Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Adès is one of the most stimulating and exciting of British composers alive. His work is not always accessible immediately (unlike Whitacre, say). But he grabs you by the scruff of your neck and demands your attention. Polaris was commissioned in 2018 for the brand new Frank Gehry-designed concert hall in Miami, the New World Center.
Polaris is of course the North Star, the brightest in the northern hemisphere’s night sky, and thus key to getting one’s bearings around the various constellations. Think The Plough (or Big Dipper if you’re North American) and follow the trajectory of the far edge of the Plough’s ‘bucket’ and you’ll find it. Ades called this ‘a voyage’, a one-movement piece but it meanders through different stages and moods. It lasts 15 minutes, so this is not a voyage ‘to scale’! But as the developing music weaves around the orchestra, it is hard not to feel a sense of cosmic adventure.
Time’s Arrow: I. The Void – II. Explosive Exposition (1990, excerpt)
—Anthony Payne (1936-2021, British)
Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra
Anthony Payne died earlier this year just days after his wife and after illness (though not COVID-19, as far as I can discover). He was a remarkable musician, but I had only encountered him because of his brilliant and utterly convincing reconstruction of Elgar’s 3rd Symphony. He just had an incomplete score together with some sketches and scraps for the rest to work on, since it was left unfinished on Elgar’s desk when he died in 1934. But Payne’s work is a triumph and I adore listening to it. It sounds utterly Elgarian.
You won’t think that of this piece, though! This could only be late twentieth-century, influenced by the Russian masters like Stravinsky and Shostakovich as well as modernists on both sides of the Atlantic. It was commissioned for the BBC Proms in 1990 and was deemed a masterpiece very soon. In it, he seeks to depict the Big Bang, a cosmic event of inconceivable proportions! Payne’s audacity of intent is verging on the insane! I’ll leave you to decide how successful he has been.
In the Shadow of the Moon (soundtrack): Re-Entry
—Philip Sheppard (1969- , English)
Philip Sheppard and studio orchestra
I was gripped by the 2006 documentary by British scientists and filmmakers David Sington and Christopher Riley, In the Shadow of the Moon. Its premise is simple: tell the story of the men who walked on the moon. There were only twelve. Twenty-four reached the moon’s orbit during the Apollo programme, of whom ten appear in the film (seven actually having stepped on it). If you have not seen it, do so! Last time I checked, it had 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and 91% Audience score.
But don’t overlook Philip Sheppard’s soundtrack. It’s stunning and, akin to the others listed in this post which have accompanying footage, it stands its own. He has subsequently gone on to compose for many films and other projects (including Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London. The whole disc does everything you want in a soundtrack in spades, but is evocative and moving even if you haven’t seen the film. That cannot be said for (dare I say it?!) the vast majority of movie soundtracks which seem trite and clichéd all too often. In fact, how about this as a fun game for all the family: take an unknown soundtrack at random and then try to retell the story cliché by cliché without watching it! Then compare notes with the actual production! But I don’t think you could do that with this one.
After our cosmic voyage, what more appropriate close to the short pieces than Re-Entry. It has it all!
The Planets (Op. 32, 1914-17)
—Gustav Holst (1874-1934, English)
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berlin Philharmonic
So, this is a controversial one to include here. Holst’s Planets suite is not astronomy at all, strictly speaking. It is that serious endeavour’s offshoot, the absurdity that is astrology. The more you investigate its claims the more ridiculous it becomes, quite frankly. It is made up of a sequence of flimsy premises piled high on ridiculous faith-leaps and creative fancies. But perhaps I’m not getting my point across clearly enough. I think astrology is totally dumb. And it has precious little to do with astronomy.
Nevertheless, Holst’s Planets is a masterpiece and, for all its popularity, it deserves close attention. Holst was born in Gloucestershire to British parents, his father descended from various European families. Most of his professional life was occupied with teaching music in several institutions, most notably St Paul’s Girl’s School, Hammersmith (from 1905 until his death). It was there that he pioneered music education for women in Britain. Despite this, he managed to sustain an impressive musical output.
Holst had premiered a major work for orchestra in 1911 called Phantastes, inspired by the famous George MacDonald book of that title. It was not a success (and has never been recorded, as far as I can tell) so Holst formally withdrew it. He was looking for something else to get his teeth into to overcome the disappointment. The Planets was just that, preoccupying him throughout the First World War, and it would become the piece for which he is best known. The seven planets of the solar system are each depicted in seven movements, evoking their astrological (rather than physical or astronomical) character. I suppose we could say that they thus correspond in some loose way to the seven Narnia books as decoded by Michael Ward in his remarkable Planet Narnia (although Lewis took as his inspiration the mediaeval system which included Sol, the Sun, and Luna, Earth’s moon, instead of Herschel’s Uranus or the 1847-discovered Neptune).
- Mars, the Bringer of War
- Venus, the Bringer of Peace
- Mercury, the Winged Messenger
- Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
- Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
- Uranus, the Magician
- Neptune, the Mystic
These seven movements are so frequently played now and used to accompany a vast range of footage and moods that we easily miss how overflowing with invention and brilliance they are. There are fantastic melodies (Brits will know that of Jupiter as the tune for I vow to thee my country) and epic rhythms (how many newsreels from the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland or Russia have been accompanied by Holst’s Mars? Too many to count). At every turn, Holst gives us something new, leaving a unique legacy that pops up throughout twentieth century cinematic music everywhere: there’s the mysterious chills provided by a wordless chorus of female voices in Neptune, or the affecting melancholy of Saturn, and the gorgeous romanticism of Venus’s peace ushered in by tender solos on violin and then oboe. This is truly music to return to again and again.