Playlist: Music for a mission to Mars


Journey into outer space

A playlist of stellar classical music to celebrate the latest Mars mission

This morning, scientists from the US and Russia hurled a new satellite into space (BBC). Its mission? To investigate the sources of methane in Mars’ atmosphere – and take some nifty photos along the way, we hope.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is expected to reach the Red Planet on 16 October, a mere seven months from now. To pass the time until then, the team at Classical Music Reimagined have put together a mini-playlist of music associated with the worlds beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Voyage into space with inspiring classical themes guaranteed to fuel your spirit of adventure.

Gustav Holst: Mars from The Planets (1914)

The Planets (Op. 32) is is perhaps the best-known of all Holst’s works. Written between 1914 and 1916, it’s an orchestral suite of seven movements, each corresponding to a planet of the solar system as it was then known. (Pluto wouldn’t be discovered until 1930, when Holst had by all accounts lost interest in updating the work. Just as well, since scientists have since downgraded Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’ status.)

Strictly speaking, The Planets‘ focus is astrological rather than astronomical: think star signs rather than rocket science. Yet each of its movements captures the distinct mythological qualities associated with the planets – Holst’s lush orchestral textures perfectly illustrating the planets’ beauty as well as their more foreboding qualities. Step forward, ‘Mars, Bringer of War’.

Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra (1896)

The opening of Also sprach Zarathustra (‘Thus spake Zarathustra’) is probably best-known as the soundtrack to the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, it’s the ending of this piece which is arguably of the most interest to serious space explorers.

Once of the key themes of Strauss’s 30-minute tone poem is the constant battle between two close yet conflicting musical keys: B major, representing humanity, and C major, representing the universe. Crucially missing from the very end is the reassuring, satisfying authentic cadence that you might expect from a piece of classical music. The music doesn’t simply return to the home key: instead, it finishes with both B and C major.

This lack of resolution has been interpreted as a nod to the Nietzschean concept of the Welträthsel or ‘world riddle’: for many, it represents the essential unknowability of the universe and mankind’s position within it.

Gaetano Donizetti: ‘Il dolce suono’ from Lucia di Lammermoor (1835)

Who said that in space, no-one can hear you sing? Another classical work popularised by the silver screen, this aria from the ‘mad scene’ of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor features in Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi epic The Fifth Element.

In the original opera, Lucia di Lammermoor sings ‘Il dolce suono’ (‘The sweet sound’) as she wanders the stage in a demented stupor, having just murdered her new husband on their wedding night. In the film, the aria is performed on a luxury intergalactic cruise ship by Plavalaguna, a blue alien who – *SPOILER ALERT* – is the guardian of four element stones that, in combination with the fifth element, will save mankind from annihilation.

Go figure. It’s a great aria.

John Williams: Star Wars (1977)

There’s nothing like a spot of Star Wars to make you feel like the universe has been saved and they’re handing out the medals. Film composer John Williams won an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and three Grammy Awards for his original score in 1978, the year after Star Wars‘ release, and in 2005 the American Film Institute voted it the greatest American film score of all time.

No wonder: it borrows liberally from the classical tradition, taking inspiration from Holst’s The Planets, Korngold’s Violin Concerto and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring among a host of other influences. How many can you spot?

David Bowie: ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) arr. Chris Hadfield

OK, so it’s not strictly classical, but it’s a fantastic track and perfect for our playlist – especially performed here, in space, by the former astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield.