When I was at high school, I wanted to become an aerospace engineer and an astronaut. I had read dozens of books on astronauts, test pilots and rocket engineers and seen all the Star Wars episodes. I knew how to use a telescope and sky charts, I had visited Cape Canaveral and I had a thick documentation on aerospace engineering at the Queen Mary College, University of London. Alas, I found out that my fascination with maths and physics did not translate into sufficiently good examination marks. Bye, bye, sweet dream. I would not be the first Luxembourger in space.
Pulled towards the vastness of space
But the fascination is still there. When I come home late and park the car in front of the house, I usually look up at the sky to identify a few stars, to admire the moon, to watch out for a meteorite. Something pulls me towards that vastness of space, I physically feel a force acting upon my body like a Jedi knight feels the Force. It would have been fantastic to orbit around Earth in a space station, to feel zero gravity… Not too long ago, I came across an orchestral suite called “The Planets” (op. 32), written by the British composer Gustav Holst between 1914 and 1916, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Each of the seven movements is named after one of the planets of our solar system. Seven? Seven. Holst did not consider writing about Earth, Mahler had already done it!
A martial theme for Mars
So, are you ready for a space trip? Fasten seat belts, all systems go, ignition! Off we fly in our T-65 X-wing starfighter, heading for Mars, the Bringer of War, with a theme that could be straight out of John Williams’ score for “The Empire Strikes Back”. Which is no coincidence. One of John Williams’ themes illustrating scenes when the Empire is showing its resolve to crush the rebellion led by Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia is an obvious nod to Holst’s first movement: martial, massive, intimidating, with abundant brass instruments and percussion.
The second movement – Venus, Bringer of Peace – is the total opposite, as it should be. A gentle, floating, dreamlike melody, balm for physical and psychic wounds inflicted by human strife and the glimmer of hope that war will be a thing of the past. “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” is the title of the third movement. An X-winged messenger in this case. Strings, woods and the xylophone that take us as close to the sun as safety regulations allow and let us admire its force to give life.
The big leap across the Asteroid Belt
And now, the big leap: We are leaving the heart of the galaxy to explore its outer rim, we pass the Asteroid Belt and zero in onto Jupiter. Holst sees Jupiter, the head of the Roman deities, as the Bringer of Jollity. A majestic melody, true, but jolly? There is nothing jolly about Jupiter: It is made of gas, a day on the planet lasts merely ten hours and to complete one orbit around the sun it needs 11 years. Short days, seasons without an end and the average temperature is -108°C. Not exactly welcoming. We will do a short fly-by and head out to Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age.
Admire the rings! Admire the many shades of its atmosphere! Admire the many moons it has! Admire Holsts beautiful music. A balanced movement where all instrument groups have their part to play. The serenity and wisdom of old age… I am not yet there, but I am getting closer. It is a long way from Jupiter to Saturn: roughly 655,000,000 km.
Jupiter seeking revenge on Saturn
Holst’s composition illustrating Saturn reminds me also of Tchaikovsky’s idée fixe: doom. Saturn, one more Roman god giving his name to a planet, had received a prophecy: He would die through the hand of one of his children. To counter fate – usually a useless enterprise – Saturn ate all his children except Jupiter, who had been hidden by his mother. Once Jupiter had grown up, he seeked revenge and Saturn had to flee and hide. If death does not strike me with fear, the suffering that might be linked to old age makes me shiver sometimes.
But here come Uranus, the Magician: With a triumphant and yet mysterious fanfare he greets us in our space ship. According to Greek mythology, Uranus, first born son to Gaia, brought the male element into the universe. Male? Magic? Well… I believe today’s world would be better off with a little more recognition for female everyday heroes and a little less of Mister Magic.
Neptune and beyond
On the horizon, I see Neptune, the Mystic. And truly mystic it is. It is huge. It is made of gas. It orbits around the sun very, very slowly. One trip around takes 165 years. It shimers blue and reminded early astronomers of the sea – Neptune, the God of the Sea, hidden from human eyes in the depth of the oceans, unfathomable. Holst captures these ideas in his music in an admirable way and when the movement fades out into nothing – that’s part of the mystery. No climax, no finale, the void.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when Holst wrote this suite, astronomers did not know what was beyond Neptune. Pluto was discovered only in 1930 and lost its status as a planet in 2006, after several other, bigger objects had been discovered in the (relative) vicinity of Pluto. At the edge of our solar systems, we see millions of unknown stars, galaxies, nebula – and our spaceship disappears in a black hole without a sound.
© Charles Thibo