The Music of the Spheres

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Recently, on 29 September, 2018, a concert was held in the Barbican, London, to mark the centenary of Gustav (Von) Holst's suite 'The Planets'. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played each of the seven planets (as were known to Holst) magnificently, and there was a fascinating introduction to each provided by Professor Brian Cox, who compared what was known about the planets in Holst's time, compared to discoveries throughout the 20th Century up to the our own times. 

'Mars: bringer of war' is the thrilling show-stopper, but particularly resonant for our purposes (re: Black Box) is 'Jupiter: the bringer of jollity'. An upbeat piece, Holst's impression of the planet was not astronomy, but astrology. He became interested in the pseudo-science as a quasi-serious hobby through the writing of Alan Leo, who popularised the 'character reading' aspect of horoscopes. Leo wrote of Jupiter: 

'Jupiter governs a combination of feeling and thought. It includes humanity, benevolence, compassion, honour, candour, good humour, and the higher moral and social qualities.'
Alan Leo, The Art of Synthesis (1912)

And these are what Holst strived to evoke. The astrological traits of the planets, being in essence watered down Greco-Roman myths (homeopathic mythology, if you will) couldn't be further from the scientific reality of each planet - but they serve as archetypal cyphers for aspects of the human condition, and so tap into something perennial and universal.  

His suite is a work of musical genius, whatever inspired it. 

What is eerily resonant is the 'Thaxted' sequence within 'Jupiter', which was repurposed for the patriotic hymn, 'I Vow to Thee My Country'. with lyrics by Cecil Spring-Rice (initially written in 1918; and released with its music by Holst in 1921). A stirring hymn, it has unfortunately become associated with the nationalistic jingoism which became increasingly toxic throughout the 20th Century, and has now reared its ugly head again. And yet the patriotic fervour of the hymn, set against the famous 'pale blue dot' of the Earth (our planet as photographed from 6 billion kilometres away by Voyage 1, on 14th February 1990, as it left the solar system: a single pixel containing 6 billion lives), seems ludicrous - we all live on one infinitesimal speck in a vast cosmos. The astronauts of Apollo 8 when the beheld 'earthrise', flying over the surface of the moon, saw a beautiful blue jewel without borders, without politics, without inequality, without conflict. They saw how vulnerable and precious it was - they achieved, fleetingly, global consciousness. And with the publication of the latest sobering IPCC report, stating with have to maintain the planet's mean temperature within a 1.5 degree margin to prevent climate chaos and consequences of a devastating nature, we need that global consciousness more than ever. We need to think outside our little bubbles - the endemic tribalism of our age - and fight for planet Earth and the survival of its remaining biodiversity (including us). And thus, the hymn may be reclaimed as an ecological one.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love

Certainly, if we are to make it deeper into space then that will require international co-operation - as we are already seeing on the International Space Station. Space exploration can bring out the best in humanity - just look at the extraordinary collaborations that have led to the success of the Juno mission, exploring Jupiter's moons, the Curiousity rover on Mars, and others. It would be wonderful if, when we reach our planetary neighbours in the Solar System, we do so collectively, for the good of humankind - and not in the name of this flag, or that. No-one can own space, and no-one by rights should be able to 'claim' another planet. The universe is big enough for all of us. Perhaps the real music of the spheres will be achieved when humanity thinks works together in harmony for future generations. 

If you can access BBC iplayer, then it is possible to listen to the entire concert. Turn the lights low and embark on a symphonic tour of the Solar System:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0000kfx

For background on Holst's interest in astrology and how it informed The Planets suite read this:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/50lC1fntmSl2W57yXhCPVjg/how-ancient-mystical-beliefs-inspired-a-20th-century-classic

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