This week, we’re looking up at the night sky for some musical inspiration written in the stars. It’s a show all about pictures, stars, and mythological tales, a show we’re calling “Constellations.”
Here’s your starry playlist:
- Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787), Orfeo ed Euridice – Orfeo et Euridice is considered the first “modern” opera. Gluck struck out in a new direction that was more flexible than the French tragedie lyrique and less bound to showcasing divas than older Italian opera. You might remember the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the original star-crossed couples. Eurydice is killed by a snakebite, and Orpheus travels to Hades to attempt to retrieve her. Orpheus is a musician by trade, known for his beautiful voice and his skill on the Greek lyre, an early harp like instrument that often accompanied the voice. He charms the king of the underworld into releasing Eurydice using the power of this instrument. Orpheus’s lyre was thought to be divine, originally made from a tortoise shell for Apollo, the god of music. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice was immortalized by the Greeks and Romans through the constellation Lyra, which depicts the famous lyre that was used to bargain for Eurydice’s soul.
- Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), Castor et Pollux – A split in public taste in the 18th-century led to the formation of two rival factions, the ramists and the lullistes. The ramists were interested in the complexities of music, as evident in the music we just heard from Rameau’s second musical tragedy. On the other hand, the lullistes prefered tradition, especially the works of their idol, Lully. The debate was nasty, but it spurred Rameau to write several successful operas that remain performed even today. Castor and Pollux are twins from Greek mythology, and in Rameau’s opera both are in love with the same woman. However, Pollux has the gift of immortality, whereas Castor does not. After Castor is killed in battle, Pollux, now able to marry without complication, gives up his chance at happiness and descends into the underworld to bring his brother back to life. Jupiter rewards his sacrifice by making both brothers immortal, and both are accepted into the Zodiac as the constellation Gemini.
- George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Hercules – Eighteenth-century opera and constellations have a lot in common: they’re both largely based on the Greek mythology. Handel wrote at least half a dozen operas based on Greek myths, including two different works based on the legendary hero Hercules. The story of Hercules (or technically “Heracles” in Greek myth) is one of the most famous myths in classical mythology, and it’s also the most prominent story present in the night sky. First, Hercules is depicted in the Hercules constellation, a large summer constellation. But set around the Hercules constellation are several other constellations depicting the various things he killed in his famous Twelve Labors. There’s the constellation Leo (representing his first labor, the Nemean lion). There’s also the constellations Hyrda (the nine-headed monster from his second labor) and Cancer (the crab he crushed while slaying the hydra). And there’s the Draco constellation—the dragon guarding the golden apples from his twelfth and final labor.
- Gustav Holst (1874–1934), The Planets: Uranus, the Magician – Now, planets are not technically part of any constellation. The word planet is derived from the Greek word for “wanderer,” because if you observe the night sky closely, you’ll see the planets wandering around the fixed constellations. How the planets interact with these constellations is the basis of ancient astronomy and modern astrology—and there’s no piece of music that combines astronomy and astrology better than Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Each movement represents one of the planets in our solar system (excluding Earth). But Holst’s inspiration really came from the characters of the mythological gods that the planets were named after. So, the movement Uranus is not about a blue gas giant about 1.7 billion miles away, but rather about the Greek god of the sky Ouranos. In fact, the planet Uranus wasn’t discovered until 1781, when it was spotted by British astronomer and part-time composer William Herschel!
- Samuel Barber (1910–1981), Capricorn Concerto – The astrological sign Capricorn, named after the constellation, is technically the first zodiac sign of the winter season, beginning on the 22nd of December. However, it was not after this sign on which Samuel Barber based his Capricorn Concerto, but rather his house. Barber acquired the house in 1943 and continued to live there until 1974 alongside fellow composer Gian-Carlo Menotti. It is said the house itself was named Capricorn due to the way the light shines on it during the winter. Barber’s Capricorn Concerto is the first in a new style for the composer, one that uses a standard tonal style rather than the polytonal music he wrote earlier in his career. It’s often paired with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. Both share the same three-movement concerto grosso format, and feature flute, oboe and trumpet.
- Galt MacDermot, “Aquarius” from Hair – While astrology has been rejected by mainstream science, it has been lovingly embraced by many in the counterculture. So it makes sense that astrology also plays a part in the 1960s counterculture musical Hair. The “Age of Aquarius” refers to a specific idea in astrology called the “astrological age.” Because of how our earth’s axis precesses, the constellations actually drift in the sky slowly over the course of about 25,000 years. Astrologers have divided those 25,000 years into twelve different “astrological ages,” roughly 2,000 years each. Each age corresponds to a major cultural development for humanity, and is represented by a different sign of the zodiac. According to astrologers, we’ve been living in the “Age of Pisces” and the dawning of “Age of Aquarius” is occurring sometimes around… now, give or take a century or two. This new age, as described in the musical, will be a time of peace, love and harmony.
- Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782), Orione Overture, No. 1 in D major – Orion is one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky, and visible throughout the world. Its symbolism takes many forms in world folklore: a shepherd in Egypt, a deer in India, and a reaper in Hungary to name a few. But its roots as a mighty hunter in Greek mythology have made it a prime subject for classical music composers throughout history, starting with the opera L’Orione by Francesco Cavalli in 1642. Just over a century later, J.S Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian Bach, took inspiration from Cavalli’s opera when he began composing Italian style opera for the King’s Theater in London. His opera seria Orione was well received, and Johann Christian decided to move to London permanently, becoming known as the “London Bach.” Johann Christian was probably the most successful and popular Bach in his own life time, After he died, his wife was given a life pension by the Queen of England.
- Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739–1799), The Rescue of Andromeda by Perseus (from Metamorphoses) – A friend of Mozart, Haydn, and Gluck, the Austrian-born Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf was an extremely popular and prolific composer during the 18th century. In the 1780s, Dittersdorf had planned on setting the fifteen books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses into fifteen symphonies, but in the end, he only made six. Ovid’s epic poem concerns how the mythical gods of classical antiquity shaped the world we know. The fourth book (and Dittersdorf’s fourth symphony) tells the story of Perseus and Andromeda. Andromeda’s mother, Queen Cassiopeia, boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than Poseidon’s sea-nymphs. So as punishment, Poseidon chained Andromeda to a rock to be attacked by a sea monster. She was later rescued by the hero Perseus, and the two were married. After their death, Perseus, Andromeda and even Queen Cassiopeia were all transformed into constellations in the night sky.
- Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Southern Cross” (written by Stephen Stills, Rick and Michael Curtis) – The “Southern Cross” is a small yet mighty constellation (known officially as Crux) visible in the southern hemisphere. Although it doesn’t take up much space in the night sky, the four bright stars that make up the cross are unmistakable. These four stars have been indispensable for ships navigating the seas of the southern hemisphere, and they are so iconic that they show up on the flags of several southern countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Samoa and Papua New Guinea. The Southern Cross was also the subject of this 1982 song by band Crosby, Stills and Nash (no Young). In the song, the Southern Cross is used as a navigational beacon for a southern sailing trip, as singer Stephen Stills also navigates the troubled waters of a broken heart.
- Sara Bareilles, “Cassiopeia” – In this song from 2013, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles creates a modern myth about the ancient constellation known as Cassiopeia. This W-shaped constellation that sits opposite the Big Dipper in Ursa Major was named after Queen Cassiopeia, a vain queen from Greek Mythology who ruled over modern day Ethiopia. While the Greeks believed the gods were present in constellations, we now know that they are made up of burning balls of gas located thousands of light years away from earth (and away from each other). In the song, Bareilles describes Cassiopeia not as a mythical goddess but as a lonely group of stars, waiting for another constellation to collide with her to free her from her loneliness.