Music of the Spheres: Classical Music for the Eclipse

Eclipse mania is gripping the country!  Next week, a huge swath of the United States will be treated to a textbook perfect, solar eclipse that (depending on the weather) should be seen by millions.  Alas, for those of us in the far north of the country, the effect won’t be so total. So I’m consoling myself with a playlist of appropriate classical music, drawing on music inspired by the moon, the sun, or outer space as a whole.

Grab your specialty glasses, and have a listen!

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Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor, Moonlight. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is far too famous to need an introduction… just cue it up and enjoy.

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Debussy: “Claire de Lune,” from Suite bergamasque. The third and most famous movement of Suite bergamasque, “Clair de lune” takes name comes from Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name. It is a gorgeous idyll in which a speaker contemplates his beloved’s soul, in lines that are both beautiful and melancholy.

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Dvořák: “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém” (“Song of the Moon”), from Rusalka. Dvořák’s moltenly beautiful “Song of the Moon” is an absolute jewel, and worth the price of admission to his opera, Rusalka.  In this song, the mermaid Rusalka confesses to the moon that she has fallen in love with a human….

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Fauré: “Clair de lune,” Op. 46 No 2.  In 1887 Gabriel Fauré composed this “quintessential song” to words by Paul Verlaine—the same poem that inspired Debussy.

Your soul is a delicate landscape
Where roam charming masks and bergamasques
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.
While singing in minor mode
Of victorious love and easy life
They don’t seem to believe in their happiness
And their song is mingling with the moonshine,
With the sad and beautiful moonshine,
Which makes the birds in the tree dream
And sob with ecstasy the water streams,
The great slim water streams among the marbles.

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Gorecki: Symphony No. 2, Copernican.  Four years before the debut of his famous Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Gorecki wrote Symphony No. 2 for the 500th birthday of fellow Pole, Coperincus. The choral work owes its lyrics to excerpts from the 15th-century astronomer’s seminal tome, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”).

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Granados: Cant de les estrelles (“Song of the Stars”).  Granados’ Cant de les estrelles was born under an unlucky, ahem, star.  The score has been alternately lost or locked into lawyers’ vaults while various lawsuits for decades. In 2007 it was finally performed (and subsequently recorded) for the first time since its debut in Barcelona in 1911. Scored for the unusual combination of piano, organ, and three choruses, it provides a curious, ethereal choral sound evoking the outer cosmos.

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Haydn: Il Mondo della Luna.  One of the earliest operas to feature the idea of space travel, Franz Joseph Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna, written in 1777, is about an astronomer who falsely believes that he’s transported to the moon.

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Holst: The Planets This one is a bit of a ringer… neither the sun nor the moon makes an appearance of Holst’s famous suite.  That said, it feels wrong to leave off the most famous outer space-themed work of classical music… so here it is.

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Nielsen: Helios Overture This glorious tone poem recalls Greek mythology, depicting the sun as a blazing chariot that arcs across the sky over the course of a gorgeous day.

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Riley: Sun Rings. When scientists from NASA shared tapes of sounds of emitted in outer space with the inventive Kronos Quartet in 2000, the ensemble immediately reached out to Riley, an affirmed science fiction fan who had previously written the string quartet Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector. The result was Sun Rings, a 73-minute, 10-movement work that incorporates the celestial music into the written piece.

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Sibelius: “Terve kuu” (“Hail, O Moon!”), from Six Partsongs, Op. 18: No. 2. In 1901 Finland’s elite Suomen Laulu Choir, then an all-male ensemble, was preparing to tour Europe; it commissioned a new work from Jean Sibelius especially for the occasion. The ensemble boasted an especially fine low bass singer, and Sibelius composed an a capella work with him in mind. The text draws from a scene in the epic poem Kalevala, where the wizard Väinämöinen ritually greets the moon and sun.

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