Space, with its infinite number of galaxies, stars, moons and planets has been an inspiration to the arts for many centuries.
Many composers throughout time have also sought to capture those elements in their music, so let’s take a look at some pieces of classical music about space.
Classical Music About Space
1. Sun Rings by Terry Riley
Terry Riley has been at the heart of experimental music for decades. He is an American born (1935) composer and performer and perhaps most associated with the minimalist school of music. This somewhat limits his catalogue of work that encompasses so much more than a single genre.
Influences on his music come from many different sources as they do for nearly every composer. For Riley, Jazz and Indian music feature regularly in his music.
Sun Rings is an unusual and remarkable piece of music. It stretches far beyond a score in the conventional sense. Riley scored the piece for the famous Kronos Quartet string quartet, chorus and pre-recorded sounds that are from space.
Additionally, Riley includes fascinating visuals (as supplied by Willie Williams), in Sun Rings that are an integral part of the work. The space sounds were supplied by NASA and represent nearly forty years of recordings captured by spacecraft using plasma wave receivers.
2. The Planets (Op.32) by Gustav Holst
Composed between 1914 and 1916, as the First World War raged, Holst remarkably managed to write these seven pieces whilst he was the Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, London.
The Suite for Large Orchestra as Holst describes is also includes a chorus. The first performance of the work was in 1920 that reportedly a tremendous success.
Holst hotly denied any programmatic content to these seven movements merely stating that should any clarification or deeper understanding of the music be needed, then the subtitles of each piece should suffice.
Holst’s inspiration was from horoscopes and astrology as opposed to astronomy. The suite is divided in this manner; 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) and Neptune (the Mystic).
It’s deeply powerful music thought-out with Holst’s handling of the immense forces he’s chosen, masterful. Each planet is distinct, colourful and at times disturbing. The opening irregular ostinato of Mars is iconic.
Equally, the beauty and sheer joy that emanates from the central slow section of Jupiter is unparalleled. In the concluding planet, Neptune, listen for the heavenly voices that fade out into the far immensity of space.
3. Deep Field: Earth Choir by Eric Whitacre
Eric Whitacre is one of the most sort after composers and conductors alive today. What perhaps brought Whitacre into the public eye and ear was his concept of virtual choirs.
This ingenious idea enabled thousands of people to come together in a virtual environment to sing. This Whitacre has managed to do with around 145 countries.
Deep Field, came as a collaboration with film-makers 59, NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute. It was inspired by the breathtaking images produced by the Hubble telescope. Its 30th Anniversary was in 2020 for which this work was commissioned.
The film for which Whitacre supplied the score takes us on a journey through Hubble’s astonishing story. This soundtrack features a truly enormous choir numbering 8000 voices in addition to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Eric Whitacre Singers.
4. Music of The Spheres (Op. 235) by Josef Strauss (1827-1870)
Some critics were not overly impressed by Strauss’s foray into the world of space. With today’s perspective on this Strauss waltz, it’s challenging to grasp what it is about this piece that could inflame a listener to be so upset.
Perhaps it was that familiarity with the eminently popular waltzes that Strausses composed that set this one aside. The opening is unusual. If you are used to the slightly formulaic waltzes that were designed to be popular and please their audience, this might cause you to consider Strauss had lost his way.
Perhaps it is the slightly vague harmonies, or maybe the almost ethereal start of this waltz that not only gives us a hint of a musical language that Josef never developed, but also the reason why it was a little controversial.
Even when the main theme arrives, it is not as immediately appealing as many previous waltzes; it is subtler. The central section Strauss devotes to the expansion of his ideas. There is a welcome spirit of good humour here with a hint of revel and merriment.
5. Polaris (Op. 29) by Thomas Ades
With this work, we arrive almost up to date. British composer, conductor and pianist Thomas Ades were commissioned by the New World Symphony to write this work for the opening of the New World Centre.
The first performance was in 2010. The duration of the score is around 13 minutes. The scoring is for large forces with triple woodwind, up to eight French horns plus triple brass, strings and a substantial percussion section.
Ades is not a composer who leaves any element of his composition to chance. Even though it may be hard to fathom what is going on in the denser sections, you can be certain that Ades has meticulously crafted this work inside and out.
This shows too in the directions Ades gives as to the placement of the players. There is the possibility for groups of brass instruments to be located off-stage. This is what Ades says about how the melodic material has been created in the piece that brings a sharp focus to the core of the music.
“Like all the music in this work, is derived from a magnetic series, a musical device heard here for the first time, in which all twelve notes are gradually presented, but persistently return to an anchoring pitch, as if magnetised.
With the first appearance of the twelfth note, marked clearly with the first entrance of the timpani, the poles are reversed. At the start of the third and final section, a third pole is discovered which establishes a stable equilibrium with the first”.1
Polaris is performed as a continuous movement. As you can probably guess the title of the piece comes from the star of the same name that provides the cement for the entire work. There is also an accompanying, optional video created by Tal Rosner.
6. Sunrise Mass by Ola Gjeilo (1978)
Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo is one of the most interesting composers to emerge in the current generation of musicians. This work was originally composed for string orchestra and chorus, but the composer has also arranged it for SATB choir.
As a testament to the quality of the work, it flows beautifully for both ensembles. Gjeilo describes the work as one that begins in the cold vastness of space and travels towards “something earthy and warm”.
This journey Gjeilo takes us on is both spiritual and partly a “metaphor for human development from child to adult”.
Sunrise Mass is a setting of the Latin text and falls into four key sections as follows: The Spheres (Kyrie), Sunrise (Gloria), The City (Credo), and Identity & The Ground (Sanctus and Benedictus and Agnus Dei). The work is thirty minutes long.