A Classical Soundtrack For The Solar Eclipse | Nashville Public Radio

A Classical Soundtrack For The Solar Eclipse

Aug 18, 2017

With the total solar eclipse set to arrive in Nashville in just a few days, hordes of sky-gazers are finalizing their viewing plans. While a good observation spot and proper eye protection are essential, a carefully curated music playlist can be the icing on the cake in preparation for this extraordinary event. 

Fortunately, classical composers have long been inspired by the heavens and there is no shortage of celestial-themed work. 

Tune in to Classical 91.1 the afternoon of the big event to hear our eclipse picks, including Evelyn Glennie's Light in Darkness leading up to to the big climax, and Ralph Vaughan Williams's Dark Pastoral for Cello and Orchestra during those much-anticipated minutes of totality. Then greet the reemerging sun with light-themed music from Robert Schumann and Edward Elgar. 

Below are more favorite works in a variety of moods and styles — so whether you might feel excited, awestruck or pensive about the impending event, consider adding one of the following pieces to your eclipse-day soundtrack: 

Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, mvt. 1 “Introduction, or Sunrise”

The first movement of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra has been associated with celestial awe since Stanley Kubrick used it to score the opening of his 1968 science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Elvis Presley picked up on the piece’s epic potential, and used the fanfare to open his concerts for a number of years in the 1970s.

But NPR has argued that the emotional impact of the work — which Strauss  based on Friedrich Nietzche’s philosophical novel of the same name — goes beyond any pop culture connotations. It’s the unison brass, the melodic repetition and the majestic cadences that makes listeners “contemplate the vastness and possibility of the universe and [brings] forward the same questions that Nietzsche proposed in 1885 about God, about humankind and about our existence here in the natural world.”

These are some of the same questions that eclipse-watchers might be asking themselves when they see totality, an experience known to be capable of eliciting profound psychological and emotional responses. Strauss’ dramatic classic might be the perfect soundtrack for what will be, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event.

Max Richter: “On the Nature of Daylight”

There’s a good chance you’ve heard Richter’s 2004 minimalist string piece “On the Nature of Daylight” before: it has appeared in the soundtrack of numerous films, including Stranger than Fiction (2006) and most recently, best picture Oscar nominee Arrival (2016).

To get literal for a moment, those anticipating the eclipse have been doing a fair amount of contemplating on the nature of daylight — or lack thereof — during the few minutes of totality. What will the world look like when daylight transforms to darkness in the middle of the day?

Beyond that, Richter’s piece is gorgeously sad. As its cinematic track record shows, it's also fitting for contemplating the larger stuff of life. If you’re one to be moved by the grand scheme of the whole thing, this might be the solar eclipse music for you. 

David Del Tredici- Syzygy

Merriam-Webster defines “syzygy” (pronounced SIH-zih-jee) as the “nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies in a gravitation system.” Perhaps the alignment of the sun, moon and earth during a solar eclipse is what David Del Tredici had in mind when he composed the piece in 1968.

A Pulitzer Prize and Naumburg Award winner, Del Tredici found early influence in the work of Schoenberg and the ideas about non-traditional harmony and music structure. In Syzygy, he uses a palindromic effect by exchanging the wind and string parts and rendering the first half of the piece in reverse, which might be a nice musical pairing with the coming and going of the moon in front of the sun. 

Traditional Norwegian Hymn, arr. Daniel Nystedt: “Se, solens skjønne lys og prakt” or “Behold, the Beautiful Light of the Sun”

Originally written by German priest Christian Scriver in 1689, “Behold, the Beautiful Light of the Sun” was translated to Norwegian in 1734 and has remained in the religious repertoire since.

This acapella arrangement from the Olso Chamber Choir beautifully blends Norwegian folk styles with classical church music. Both, according to artistic director and arranger Daniel Nystedt, share the common feeling of longing for something.

Whether or not you speak Norwegian, you can hear the longing echoing through voices of the soloist and chorus as they bid you to behold the beautiful light of the sun. Just make sure you behold it with ISO-compliant safety glasses on Monday.

George Frederick Handel: Samson, Act I, Scene 2 “Total Eclipse”

When Samson begins his “Total Eclipse” aria in Handel’s eponymous oratorio, it has all the astronomical trappings of an eclipse:

Total eclipse! No sun, no moon!
All dark amidst the blaze of noon!
Oh, glorious light! No cheering ray
To glad my eyes with welcome day!
Why thus depriv'd Thy prime decree?
Sun, moon, and stars are dark to me!

Unfortunately for Samson, he isn’t talking about a solar eclipse, but instead—and excuse the pun—something much darker: Dalila’s betrayal and his physical blinding at the hands of the Philistines.

The notion of blindness was a personal one for Handel, and he composed the music for Samson as his own eyesight began to fail. He lost his sight completely after a botched eye surgery, performed at a time when going under the knife was a significant risk.

Terry Riley: Sun Rings  

When the Kronos Quartet was contacted by the NASA Art Program in 2000, they were presented with a unique sonic opportunity: to use sound collected from hundreds of millions of miles away by plasma wave receivers on the twin Voyager spacecraft and weave them into music.

Kronos Artistic Director David Harrington knew that long-time collaborator Terry Riley would be perfect for such a fascinating project. The resulting work was Sun Rings, a collection of ten “spacescapes,” which in part reflect Riley’s thoughts on the significance of planetary movements on our lives.

For the significant planetary movement that’s coming up on the 21st, the title of Riley’s piece is a great reminder of some brilliant moments to watch for during the eclipse. Most notably, the single bead of light that remains just moments before totality, known as the diamond ring, and the ghostly outer ring of the sun's atmosphere (called the corona) that you can only see during totality.

Arnold Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht  (Transfigured Night)

Before he became the pioneer of atonal modernism, a young, self-taught Schoenberg was composing in a late Romantic style similar to that of Brahms or Wagner. Written in late 1899, Transfigured Night was inspired by poetry from Richard Dehmel that depicts lovers with a dark secret on a tense, moonlit walk.

Musically, the moody atmosphere of Transfigured Night might perfectly underscore the potential eeriness of a total eclipse: the experience of darkness during the day; a drop in temperature; animal behavior changes; and maybe even some shadow bands.