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Man On The Moon

Apollo 11

Buzz Aldrin waves hello from the lunar surface, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission on this episode! (Public Domain)

50 years ago today, July 16, the historic Apollo 11 mission blasted off from the earth with a destination for the moon. So this week on the show, in honor of this milestone anniversary, the Ether Game Brain Trust is taking one small step for music trivia kind with a show all about the moon called “Man On The Moon.”

Let's take one giant leap towards our playlist below!

  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), "Moonlight" Sonata (Piano Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2)Beethoven wrote his Piano Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, at a time when he was terribly unhappy. It was around this time that he finally began to admit to his friends that he was going deaf and that marriage to his love and the work’s dedicatee, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, was out of the question. Knowing this anguish in his life, it’s easy to hear the famous first movement of the sonata as a somber funeral march, and the fiery third movement as an expression of his frustration. So, why do we call it the “Moonlight” sonata? That’s because the popular nickname was applied after Beethoven’s death by Berlin journalist and poet Ludwig Rellstab. It was Rellstab who associated the piece with “a boat passing the wild scenery of Lake Lucerne in the moonlight.” By the end of the 19th century, the nickname stuck.

  • Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), Rusalka: "O Silver Moon" – When Dvorak first saw the libretto for Rusalka, he took an immediate interest in it, and finished the opera fairly quickly. The libretto draws on several literary sources to tell the story of Rusalka, a water-nymph who falls in love with a handsome human Prince. In Act 1, Rusalka sets out to visit a witch, who knows a spell that can turn Rusalka into a human. (It's based on the same folk tale as The Little Mermaid.) On her way to visit the witch, Rusalka stops beneath the moon and sings the aria “O Silver Moon,” asking the moon to tell the Prince of her love. Rusalka’s desire to become a human and live with the Prince has tragic results, but most of Dvorak’s music for the opera is extraordinarily beautiful. “O Silver Moon” has become the most popular piece from the opera, especially after it was sung by Renée Fleming at the Metropolitan Opera.

  • Claude Debussy (1862–1918), Suite Bergamasque: Clair de lune – Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque was written sometime between 1890 and its publication in 1905—we’re not entirely sure. His development as a piano composer was slow, and according to his former piano teacher Jean-Francois Marmontel, “Debussy isn’t very fond of the piano, but he loves music.” Not everyone agreed with Marmontel’s belief that Debussy disliked the piano, but there was no question about Debussy’s passion for the night sky. The composer wrote several compositions about moonlight, mostly for the piano, including two other vocal works also titled “Clair de lune.” The piano solo we listened to tonight is often been described as Debussy’s most popular composition and has become synonymous with the image of moonlight. Music theorists point to several techniques Debussy used to evoke this image, such as a lack of a clear tonal center in the melody, and strategic uses of silence in the piece.

  • Robert Schumann (1810–1856), “Mondnacht” from Liederkreis, Op. 39 – One of the ideals of the Romantic Era was a fascination with the beauty and mystery of nature—a reaction against the Enlightenment idea of trying to figure everything out. A song like Robert Schumann’s “Mondnacht” (or “Moonlit Night”) is a perfect example of this musical romanticism. The song’s ethereal quality lives on the edge of dream and reality, reflecting the beauty of a moonlit night with music that gives the sense of flying magically into the heavens. The text here comes from the German Romantic poet Joseph Von Eichendorff, and fellow composers Johannes Brahms and Johann Hummel also set this same poem to music. Schumann’s “Mondnacht” comes from his opus 39 Eichendorff Liederkreis or song cycle. He wrote this collection in May 1840 in the middle of what’s known as his Liederjahr (or “Year of Song”). That year alone he wrote well over 100 songs.

  • Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), Il Mondo Della Luna Il Mondo della Luna was the first of Haydn’s operas to be staged following the institution of a regular opera season at Esterháza in 1776. That being said, it follows in the tradition of much earlier operas of being staged alongside royal celebrations such as birthdays and weddings. The opera's first performance was given in honor of the marriage of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy’s son, Count Nikolaus and Countess Maria Anna Wiessenwolf. In this comic opera, the false astrologer Ecclitico devises a plot to allow three pairs of lovers to marry by tricking an overprotective father with scenes of an idyllic life on the moon. All turns out well in the opera, and hopefully, so did the marriage of Count Nikolaus and Countess Maria Anna!

  • Otto Nicolai (1810–1849), The Merry Wives Of Windsor: Moonrise (“Moon Chorus”) – Otto Nicolai’s 19th-century comic opera The Merry Wives Of Windsor centers around one of Shakespeare’s most famous and lovable characters: the fat and foolish knight Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff shows up in several Shakespeare plays—including parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV—and has become a central figure in musical works by Verdi, Vaughan Williams, and Salieri. Nicolai’s opera is a classic example of a German singspiel opera, where spoken dialogue is mixed with the music, rather than having only music. While Nicolai’s singspiel about the portly knight might not have as much popularity as Verdi’s opera Falstaff, it has its memorable moments. In this famous “Moon Chorus” that opens the opera’s final scene, Nicolai embraces the sounds of the romantic era, as the chorus takes a moment to reflect on the beauty of the moonrise, before Falstaff makes a fool of himself yet again.

  • George Crumb (b. 1929), Night Of The Four Moons – When most of the world watched in awe as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission 50 years ago this week, American composer George Crumb looked on in apprehension. He expressed his ambivalence at touching down on an alien world in this work Night of the Four Moons, based on text by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Just as Apollo 11’s fateful trip put humans eternally in contact with the heavens, Crumb conceived of his piece as a marriage of the “Music of the Spheres,” represented by the cello, and the “Music of Mankind,” represented by the voice and other instruments. At the end of the piece, the members of the “Music of Mankind” leave the stage while the Music of the Spheres, the cellist, remains. The Mankind musicians then perform offstage, their sounds reaching the Spheres like a faint radio signal.

  • Otto Luening (1900–1996), Moonflight – Otto Luening’s career moved in a direction that he could have never imagined when he was starting out as a musician. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1900 to German parents, Luening started his career mostly as a flutist, opera conductor and occasional composer. However, when he was teaching at Columbia University in the 1950s, he was introduced to a tape recorder and began to experiment with the creative potential of this new machine. He teamed up with fellow Columbia professor Vladimir Ussachevsky and Princeton professors Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions to create the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, a place that became a hub for some of the most pioneering voices in modern music: Edgard Varèse, Wendy Carlos, and Charles Wuorinen. Luening worked mostly with tape, never really venturing into synthesized computer music. He wrote this piece, Moonflight, for flute and electronic tape in 1968, just as the Apollo missions were ramping up.

  • David Bowie, "Space Oddity" – When it comes to music that defines the space age, and all of the wonder and fear surrounding humankind’s trip to the moon, there’s no better song than David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Its title was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also the isolation felt by the song’s pioneering astronaut Major Tom was inspired by Dave’s isolation aboard the Discovery One spacecraft in the film. “Space Oddity” was also released 50 years ago this week, on July 11, 1969, just five days before the Apollo 11 spacecraft blasted off to the moon. Initially, the BBC was nervous to play the single until the American astronauts made it back home safely. And when they did, “Space Oddity” hit number one on the British pop charts, rocketing David Bowie to fame.

Music Heard On This Episode

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