Music of the Cosmos


Take a step away from our egocentric sense of importance as Earthlings. Sure, it's amazing that this blue planet, so full of teeming life and glorious beauty, has been traveling on its orbit for eons, populated by uncountable generations of humans. But just for a spell, let's turn our attention outward to our solar system – to the planets. And let's visit them through music. In this Active Minds program, we'll meet three composers who created sounds that capture the spiritual energy and endless mystery we've felt from our gazes into the cosmos. In their own way, Richard Strauss, Gustav Holst and (here's an unexpected name) Josef Strauss, of the famous waltz family, stretch our imaginations as they express our amazement at the vastness of the universe.


Mention the planets to a music lover and the response usually focuses on the seven-movement orchestral spectacular by English composer Gustav Holst – and rightly so. Premiered in 1918, The Planets has stood for more than a century as the most popular concert-hall space extravaganza (rivaled only by Star Wars). What won't be immediately apparent, as we sample each movement, is that this colorful suite has very little to do with the planets. So, what are they about, and why only seven? The answer to that last question is simple: Pluto (if we can call it a planet) was not discovered until long after Holst had sent his score off to the publisher. And, once we understand the sources of inspiration for this music, we'll see that Earth did not qualify for  inclusion. His score, written over a span of several years, shows that Holst was operating under the spell of an astrologist, whose books made a huge impression on the composer. Here, we have music influenced by the Zodiac – but also by primitive knowledge of the planets (remember, the score was completed early in the last century) as well as by the sources of their names: the Greek and Roman gods. But this is not simply a confusing hodge-podge of cultural sources. Listeners can simply enjoy the composer's vivid sonic explorations, so rich in their colorful orchestrations, rhythmic surprises and dramatic episodes. Similarly, we can bask in the unforgettable sounds and melodies of the music we'll hear from two (unrelated) Strausses: Richard, in his opening fanfare to Thus Spake Zarathustra, made famous in the cinematic si-fi saga, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Josef (brother of the more famous Johann, whose Blue Danube also graces that movie's soundtrack). Josef caused many Viennese heads to be scratched with the title of his dreamy waltz, Music of the Spheres, whose premiere came at the oddest of occasions.

Exploration Questions

  • Who was Alan Leo, and how did his approach to astrology get him in trouble?
  • Who was Zarathustra, and why did he inspire Nietzsche to title a book after him?
  • Why did Josef Strauss give his unassuming, tuneful waltz such an odd title?

Reflective Questions

  • Gaze into the solar system and decide which planet you'd most want to visit.
  • So, what was the deal with that crazy monolith in Stanley Kubrick's movie?
  • What are your thoughts as you look at recent surface photos and videos of Mars?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • DK Publications. The Planets – The Definitive Visual Guide to Our Solar System. DK. 2014. 256 pages. One in a series of delightful, informative hard-cover volumes on various subjects that use illustrations more than words to enlighten curious readers. Here, recent photos and easy-to-understand drawings and diagrams provide insights into our solar system.
    Click here to order
  • Holst, Imogen. Gustav Holst: A Biography. Faber & Faber. 2011. 242 pages. Since this biography of the English composer was written by his daughter, it's no surprise that this is a very personal book, revealing the ups and downs in the life of a talented, but troubled soul – who never lived down the success of his greatest musical hit.
    Click here to order