Music of the Spheres
by Christian Y. Cardall
Such was the title of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s program this past week, the first in this year’s “Masterworks” season ticket package. Included were Holy the Firm: Essay for Cello and Orchestra (2002) by Jake Heggie and Gustav Holst’s immortal The Planets (1916).
In a preview discussion an hour before the performance, conductor Lucas Richman described the two pieces as exploring spirituality from two different perspectives: one inner and personal, and the other external and cosmic.
Jake Heggie (1961- ) is alleged to be a rising star among American contemporary composers. I gather he is best known for his opera Dead Man Walking, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. His second opera, based on Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, premiered last year at the Houston Grand Opera. His output consists mostly of vocal music, including many songs in addition to his operas. Maestro Richman has been a friend of Heggie’s since their student days at UCLA; along with a few other friends they formed a kind of composers’ club, “Lo-Cal” (“local,” light, Southern California, … ), that forced them to continually compose for the concerts for which they cobbled together support every couple of months or so.
Holy the Firm, written for cello soloist Emil Miland (who appeared in this performance, as well as the premiere in the recording linked above), is named after Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s short story. I haven’t read it, but am given to understand that it is about a young girl severely burned in a plane crash, and trying to understand how God could allow such things to happen. Apparently the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred in the early stages of composition, with the result that the work took on added meaning as a response to this event. Not having read Dillard’s story yet, I haven’t learned for myself the understanding it finally reaches; the music, however, never seems to reach a resolution. It opens with a strikingly pleasant chord, shortly undermined by an unsettling melody that haunts the first portion of the piece. (The cello—featuring an acoustic cavity similar in size to the human torso—is apparently the stringed instrument most similar in register to the human voice, and is perhaps particularly appropriate for vocalesque expressions of human feeling.) There are some violent and harsh moments, and an anguished cadenza. In the last minute or two of the 27-minute piece the same (or a similar) pleasing chord as the one at the beginning suddenly appears, giving a brief hope of a triumphal or at least peaceful resolution at the last minute; alas, it too is undermined by a more poignant conclusion. It would seem no clear understanding or hope of complete healing is ever reached. The opening sentence of Dillard’s story perhaps provide a preview of the most that can be hoped for:
Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.Such courageous gratitude for whatever we are fortunate enough to have on loan from this indifferent universe is about the best a die-hard Spinozist would have to cling to in the face of disaster. One of the reviewers at Amazon took away the following message: “There is no God that will directly intervene and tell us what to do, or save us. He is as ruthless as he is merciful.… And we must remember that we control most of the things in our lives directly.”
In contrast, in composing The Planets, British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was motivated by a more fateful belief in the effects of ongoing celestial influences—specifically, as understood by astrology. As I recall (as is often the case, I’m too lazy to read my own link) the idea behind astrology is that a fluid—called ‘influence,’ literally from the Latin ‘to flow in’—flows from heavenly bodies to Earth, directly affecting terrestrial events. The work consists of seven essentially unconnected movements; each is pretty much an independent tone poem (the two missing planets are Earth, which has no astrological significance; and Pluto, which had not yet been discovered). The first movement—Mars, the Bringer of War—is a popular favorite, and is absolutely electrifying to experience live, with its big brass parts and relentless staccato rythms in ominous 5/4 time. (No doubt it suitably represented World War I.) There is a beautiful, stately melody in the middle of Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, that I think is in unison in most all the string parts, that brought Kimberly to tears. Another favorite moment for me is the end of the last movement—Neptune, the Mystic—in which a wordless chorus of high-pitched womens’ voices achieves an incredibly eerie effect.
We were able to learn a few other interesting tidbits. Our copy of The Planets, the one linked above, also includes two pieces from movie scores by John Williams: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Main Title from Star Wars, which perhaps have ties to The Planets. For example, Star Wars is reminiscent of Mars, and in Close Encounters there is a vocal segment similar to that in Neptune. In the pre-concert discussion I asked about this, and Maestro Richman—who has some movie work to his credit, as noted in his biography linked above—said that it is common for directors to have some kind of fill-in music (I forget the technical term) that gives the composer a rough idea of what is called for. He said it’s quite possible that George Lucas used Mars as a fill-in in the case of Star Wars. Also, Kimberly thought the melody in the middle of Jupiter seemed familiar from a choral piece. She didn’t manage to ask in the pre-concert discussion, but we happened to see the Maestro, soloist, and symphony managing director after the performance, a couple booths away at the wonderful Riverside Tavern overlooking the Tennessee River. Mr. Miland had changed into a Hawaiian shirt, and Maestro Richman looked every bit the artiste with his goatee, flowing mane, unbuttoned silky purple shirt, and lingering perspiration from the evening’s exertions. They were gracious in answering our questions. Kimberly learned that the familiar melody was Holst’s famous Hymn of Jesus (I thought it reminded me of background music in the Shire in Lord of the Rings). I asked Mr. Miland what soloists do during the rest of the program after their piece is finished—Listen in the wings? Go to the green room and watch TV? Bail to a bar, or to the airport? In this case he had snuck into the balcony to watch the performance. Maestro Richman told of a violinist who liked to shed her fancy soloist garb during intermission and sneak in to wing it among the second violins in standard concert black.
Well, in this self-indulgently long journal piece I hope that for once I’ve made good on the promise in my blog description of perspectives from ‘high culture’—even if the forms of spirituality suggested by the two pieces here are not likely to be enthusiastically endorsed by Mormons!