The Total Solar Eclipse Will Pair Perfectly With These Spacey Classical Music Selections

click to enlarge Total solar eclipse, 1999, as seen from France.
Total solar eclipse, 1999, as seen from France.
After a century of waiting, the U.S. will be treated to the first total solar eclipse visible across the lower 48 on Aug. 21.

As the date approaches, you may think you’re doomed to hearing “Rocket Man" on repeat during a road trip to one of numerous viewing sites. (The closest spot to Cleveland for prime viewing that day will be the greater Nashville area, more or less.)

In fact, the music of the spheres is alive and well in the classical world, and there are a handful of celestial works besides Gustav Holst’s well known “The Planets” that are worth a listen.

We've included a Spotify playlist below.

Naturally, a piece of music attempting to capture space’s infinite depths should call for proportionally-sized forces. Charles Ives’ ambitious but unfinished “Universe Symphony” requires at least two orchestras in the performing editions that have been cobbled together since his death. Like other Ives works, the piece experiments with outdoor acoustics by recommending that the orchestras be placed on mountaintops and in valleys.

Danish composer Rued Langgaard also went big with his post-World War I piece, “Music of the Spheres.” Langgaard supplements a principal orchestra with a smaller “distant” orchestra (a satellite, if you will), along with a chorus, an organ, and a soprano soloist. The music uses calm, slowly-building tone clusters to evoke the vast expanse of the cosmos. It sounds very similar to György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” which broke into pop culture in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” However, Langgaard’s piece predates Ligeti’s by almost half a century.

Another experiment in spatial acoustics is Henri Dutilleux’s “Timbres, espace, mouvement,” which is subtitled “La nuit étoilée” after the famous Van Gogh painting. The instrumentation is heavily skewed toward the upper and lower reaches of the orchestra, leaving a vast, empty expanse in the middle. Twelve cellists are arranged in a half-moon at the front of the stage; there are no violins or violas. Whirlwind figures in the woodwinds mirror Van Gogh’s signature swirling brushstrokes. While the innovative staging doesn’t quite come through on recordings, a very good rendition by Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic is available.

“UFO” is a fun, 40-minute concerto for percussion and orchestra by American composer Michael Daughtery. It was written for and premiered by Evelyn Glennie in 1999 and sadly hasn’t been heard much since. Thankfully, Glennie made two recordings; one is the original version for orchestra, and the other is an arrangement for symphonic band. In the score, Daugherty even includes some optional staging and lighting effects. The third movement is a rippling vibraphone feature, serenely evoking a saucer floating through a dark void. At several points, including the last movement cadenza, Glennie simulates the wails of an alien creature by playing a bowed metal instrument called a waterphone.

Astro-philes looking for something a little more narrative can turn to Paul Hindemith’s five-act opera, “Die Harmonie der Welt” (“The Harmony of the World”). On its surface, it’s the story of German astronomer Johannes Kepler set to music. But the opera also says a lot about Hindemith’s own views on the inextricability of harmony, acoustics, and the universe. The opera is enjoying a revival of sorts this year, having just ended a run of performances in Linz, where Kepler penned his famous treatise on the link between planetary motion and musical harmony.

The same medieval ideas that inspired Kepler also had an effect on Aaron Jay Kernis, whose “Musica Celestis” exists in both a string quartet and a string orchestra version. There’s a uniquely spiritual dimension to the piece. The title refers to angelic choruses, though Kernis doesn’t believe in angels himself. Medieval-sounding passages played without vibrato and oscillating figures conjure the regally indifferent elliptical drift of the heavenly bodies.

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