Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


To the Sun:  Classical Music and an Exciting NASA Mission

The Sun. Credit: NASA/SDO

The Sun. Credit: NASA/SDO

Many composers have written music to evoke the mood of seeing the rising sun, and I thought I’d bring some of this music to you today because an exciting new scientific mission is about to begin.  Early Saturday morning, NASA, the American space agency, is sending an unmanned spacecraft closer to the Sun than ever before to study its many mysteries.  It is the Parker Solar Probe.

NASA has wanted to implement this mission since the dawn of the space age, but it is only now that the technology is available to make it possible.  Parker Solar Probe’s heat shield will withstand temperatures of 2500 degrees Fahrenheit (1377 Celsius) while the measuring instruments in its shadow will remain at a comfortable room temperature.

You can see live coverage of the launch of the Parker Solar Probe, named for pioneering scientist Eugene Parker, at starting at 3:00 AM EDT (GMT-4) on Saturday, August 11, 2018 (the launch window begins at 3:33 AM).

And now to the music.  We must start with an excerpt of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, iconic sunrise music if there ever was any.

You can see Gustavo Dudamel conduct the entire piece with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra here.  And here is an audio recording of Richard Strauss conducting his own piece in 1944 with the Vienna Philharmonic.

For a calmer start to your morning, I suggest Grieg’s Morning Mood.

Here is the beautiful and haunting On the Nature of Daylight (Entropy) by Max Richter.

You may also enjoy Aulis Sallinen’s Sunrise Serenade, Op. 63 for two trumpets and orchestra.  And here is Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, Op. 17.

Reaching back in time, here is Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in B flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise.”

Finally, here is the oldest surviving music about the sun, nearly the oldest surviving written music, the Hymn to the Sun by Mesomedes of Crete, second century CE.

Wishing NASA the best of luck with its pioneering mission, and wishing all of you sunny days ahead!


Previous space-related posts you may enjoy

Haiku Wednesday:  Beyond–Bach in Interstellar Space

Beethoven’s Cavatina–The Universe in the Palm of Your Hand


Haiku Wednesday: Quartweet Part 2

A BIttersweet Farewell Quartweet001

Quartweet: A challenge.
Express a musical thought.
One-forty notes, max.

I give you my first:
It’s “A Bittersweet Farewell.”
I hope you like it.

After much deliberation, review, and musical sudoku, I give you my first quartweet, A Bittersweet Farewell, clocking in at just 86 notes.

The score can be seen (and heard) at the Musescore website by clicking here.

Want to write your own quartweet?  Let me outline some of the steps I went through.

  1.  Create a complete musical thought.

Ok, that sounds like the hard part, but it might not be as hard as you think.  If you just start humming to yourself, not sticking to a specific tune, you can probably generate one.  And if you do it long enough (walking around at night for hours with a sleepless infant for example) your ideas will become more elaborate, and you can probably develop variations on your theme as well.

Side note 1: for some reason, at 3AM everything used to start to sound like a folk tune that I imagine my great-grandmother singing.

Side note 2: you cannot get an infant to sleep using a 12-note tone row.  Just sayin’.

2.  Figure out how a string quartet works.

I do not play a string instrument.  I originally wrote down my quartweet in piano notation (one treble clef, one bass clef).  The range of each string instrument is different, and you have to make sure you keep your notes in a reasonable range, just as you would for a singer.

There is also an interplay between instruments that is new territory for me.  Maybe you’ve noticed I’ve been listening to a lot of string quartets lately?

3.  Write the harmony.

Here’s where the musical sudoku comes in.  A melody left by itself can get lonely.  If all the instruments play the same note…well, you get the equivalent of plainchant in voices.  So you need harmony, allied tone clusters that help to establish the mood.

The difficulty lies in the fact that certain patterns of note movement or clustering sound better than others.  Some are to be avoided because they don’t work as well, or don’t allow each instrument to shine.  Some just plain don’t sound good.  I am doing my best to avoid the use of the word “rules” here.  It’s not that you can’t do some things, it’s just that there are preferable options.  But changing one note, like changing a box in a sudoku puzzle, can have rippling effects.  Get out your erasers.

Side note 3: I hate sudoku.

4.  Transcribe the “final” version for a string quartet.

Each instrument gets its own staff.  The violins use the treble clef.  Ok.  The cello uses the bass clef.  Ok.  The viola players are already sighing.  They know what comes next is the rant about using the alto clef, which is less common.  The middle line for the treble clef is B.  The middle line for the bass clef is D.  The middle line for the alto clef is C.

No worries, violists–I’m a translator, I got this.

Side note 4: actually my rant is typically about asking why the bass clef and treble clef lines have to be different.  Sure, I understand the logic of it, but couldn’t somebody have done a little inter-clef hand-waving in ancient times and made them both the same? Especially when, on a keyboard, you have to play both at the same time?

Finally! written, harmonized, transcribed.  Ta-da!

It’s not Mozart. But then Mozart wasn’t born speaking in paragraphs either (one presumes).  We start with “mama” then “I’m hungry” then “I’d like a sandwich please” then, eventually, Proust (maybe). I’d like to think I’m at the “water is wet, fire is hot” obvious and simple stage. Eventually I’ll get beyond there (maybe).  Just have to keep trying and reaching for the madeleines.

There will be at least one more quartweet coming your way, but it’s been detained in step 3.  Soon as I get rid of those pesky parallel fifths and other infractions of the…guidelines, I’ll send it your way.


Music Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported [CC BY-ND 3.0] Chris Gallant 2016.






Haiku Wednesday: The Quartweet Part 1

Quartweet, quartetto
Slim as a stiletto, a
Hundred forty notes.

The Signum Quartet has presented a challenge:  compose a quartet consisting of no more than 140 notes–a quartweet.  The note limit is the same as the character limit imposed on messages in Twitters, called tweets.  You can read about it in my previous post on the quartweet.

Well, of course, Bach did it first, and masterfully.

I’ve been thinking about trying this since my original post on the subject.  I had a piece in mind, and got it down near the limit; it was still too heavy-handed though.  It was originally written as a choral piece, with four notes for each syllable.  This piece sounded like what it would be like if one asked a quartet to play while wearing parkas and mittens.  Dull, muffled, awkward.  I needed to fix it.

So how do you write a string quartet when you don’t know how?  First, don’t give up and say it can’t be done.  Second, ask your music teacher.

What if you don’t have a music teacher?  Another thing I did was listen to and follow the scores of quartets to get a feel for what it’s supposed to sound (and look) like.  A fine endeavor, and pleasant, but it does take a lot of time.  It’s a little like learning English by reading Shakespeare.

Another approach I took is more like a quote attributed to Michelangelo.  He said a sculpture already existed in a block of marble, all he did was chip away the pieces that didn’t belong.  Fortunately, music scores are more forgiving than marble, in that you can put chunks back in if you happen to lop off the nose.

But then things got hectic.  Like Willie Dixon’s old song said, “I can’t quit you, baby/But I got to put you down a little while.” And so it was.  Yes, this post contains quartets and American blues.

But I recently got to thinking about the quartweet again…and decided that I had the wrong song for the project.  Part of the heavy-handedness was that it was ab initio clunky (there’s a word combination you don’t see often).  But luckily, I thought of some possible replacements.

I had written a setting of Nunc dimittis, but I wasn’t sure it would work; it would need some tinkering.  But there was another setting, this one of In Manus Tuas, and it occurred to me that the first iteration of words seemed just about the right length.  So I counted the notes as written: 135.  Q.E.D., right?

Well, not exactly.  I ran into the same problem I had with the other piece–choral writing is not quartet writing (unless you’re Bach; and I think we’ve pretty firmly established where I stand in that regard).

So I’m continuing to chip away the bits that don’t sound like a cello, or a violin, put the nose back on the viola…and it’s coming along, but it’s not there yet.

And that is why this is The Quartweet Part One.

A number of people have already submitted their quartweets, and you can find them here.


The 140 Note Quartet:  Introducing the #quartweet

The Signum Quartet, in conjunction with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, has introduced the Quartweet.  The challenge is to write a four-voice piece with a maximum of 140 notes, just like a Twitter post.  The initiative was recently discussed in an article by WQXR.

The quartet notes that this is not an entirely new concept (except for the Twitter part).  Bach’s chorale Christus, der ist mein Leben clocks in at 125 notes.  The quartet also cites Webern’s Bagatelles and some of the Microludes by Kurtág.

The Signum Quartet has set up a page for the quartweets and their scoresA number of quartweet performances can be seen on YouTube, along with other longer performances by the quartet.

Here is a tongue-in-cheek quartweet for your Monday morning.

And Bach shows us, as always, how it’s done, with Christus, der ist mein Leben.


WordPress tells me that the post above is exactly 140 words, however they reckon it.