Music and the Cosmos – with Professor Brian Cox
As Professor Brian Cox makes his second appearance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, broadcast on 23 December 2020, he asks ‘the only interesting existential question’: What does it mean to live a small, finite life in a possibly infinite, eternal universe? Here he introduces some of the works in the concert, and we pick four other pieces inspired by the cosmos.

As Professor Brian Cox makes his second appearance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, broadcast on 23 December, he asks ‘the only interesting existential question’: What does it mean to live a small, finite life in a possibly infinite, eternal universe? Here he introduces some of the works in the concert, and we pick four other pieces inspired by the cosmos

In the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Music and the Cosmos concert, Principal Guest Conductor Dalia Stasevska directs the orchestra in works by composers who have also pondered our place in the universe, as Cox shares spectacular imagery and recent cosmological discoveries. ‘Our small world orbits around one star among 400 billion inside one galaxy among 2,000 billion in the small patch of the universe we can see,’ says Cox. ‘Light takes over 100,000 years to cross our galaxy, and 2 billion years to make its way from our nearest galactic neighbour, Andromeda. We are a fragile speck in a limitless ocean of stars.

‘The questions raised by our observations of the universe are profound; to put it bluntly, when confronted by the size and scale of the universe, what’s the point?

‘This concert is part of my personal search for answers. I don’t claim to have the answer, of course. As one of my heroes, Carl Sagan, wrote, astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience; anyone who claims to have the answer is not humble and is also wrong. Having said that, the search for answers is in itself an important part of what it means to be human. Astronomy doesn’t render the quest for meaning futile; it amplifies the challenge.’

Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 5, 3rd mvt
The evening begins with the finale of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, depicting the majesty of swans in flight. ‘For me,’ says Cox, ‘this piece is also a love letter to humanity. ‘We are, after all, a part of nature – in fact we are the most complex part of nature we know of anywhere in the universe. A human being is a collection of atoms that contemplates atoms – matter, processed in generations of stars and clumped together by gravity, capable of writing symphonies.’

Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question
‘In The Unanswered Question, Charles Ives poses and explores the deepest possible question: Why does anything exist?

The answer to that is, of course: We don’t know. But I am at least tempted to qualify that with a “yet”. From a scientific perspective, “Why?” questions are usually dismissed as unanswerable, but it is worth exploring what an answer might look like.

‘For example, our best explanation for the pattern of the galaxies scattered across the sky like snowflakes is that their origin can be traced back to a time before the Big Bang, when the universe was cold and dark and expanding at an unimaginably fast rate. The end of this period, known as Inflation, is the beginning of the Big Bang. We do not know how Inflation began, or even if it had a beginning in time. Perhaps our universe is eternal. If our universe didn’t have an origin in time, does that answer the “Why?” question?’

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 10, 1st mvt
‘The most eloquent expression I know of the realisations that our lives are small, delicate and finite and yet indescribably valuable, perhaps even in a universal context, are the symphonies of Mahler. The orchestra can say things in music that I cannot in words, and so I leave the last word to them, and to this work.’

Four Other Cosmic Pieces

Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’

Let’s first deal with the elephant in the room, the mothership of all music relating to the cosmos. Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets – whose seven movements each represent a planet of our Solar System (excluding Earth) – is still a thrilling ride more than 100 years after its premiere in 1918.

Holst’s take was astrological rather than astronomical, concentrating on the perceived character of each planet. So Mars is ‘the Bringer of War’, Venus ‘the Bringer of Peace’ and so on.

In a score that ranges from brutal violence to glinting delicacy, Holst marshalled the forces of a huge orchestra and laid down the map of planetary score-writing for successful generations.

Emily Howard’s ‘Solar’

While we’re talking about our Solar System, we shouldn’t forget the other elephant in the room – the Sun.

In her colourful six-minute orchestral 2010 piece Solar, Emily Howard wanted ‘to encapsulate the sun’s strong solar magnetic field as well as its status as an object of devotion in cultures throughout history’.

It begins with searing energy, but also projects slow-burning intensity, and ends audaciously with a single tubular bell note whose rays ring out into eternity.

Howard studied Maths and Computer Science before turning to composition and these areas have keenly influenced her music. In addition to Solar, her works include a trilogy of pieces inspired by the mathematician and computer pioneer Ada Lovelace (Ada SketchesMesmerism and Calculus of the Nervous System). The orchestral pieces Antisphere and Torus reimagine abstract forms in musical terms and her Orbits series of chamber works is a collaboration with German mathematician Lasse Rempe-Gillen.

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ‘Sirius’

Karlheinz Stockhausen was – like the iconoclast John Cage – one of the gamechangers of musical history. A pioneer of electronic music and graphic scores, he created a new sonic world in his Mikrophonie I, which features the amplified and electronically manipulated sounds of a gong captured by a microphone.

Much of his work and thinking was cosmically inclined – beyond the earthly plane – not least his music-theatre piece Sirius (1975–7), named after the brightest star in the night sky, in which four representatives from a planet orbiting Sirius descend to Earth with a message. The work also has a more mundane, earthly offshoot – Sirius was the name the composer gave to his daughter’s dog!

György Ligeti’s ‘Atmosphères’

Listen to this mesmeric orchestral piece by György Ligeti and you enter a world of delicately shifting sound-clouds whose textures glow with pulsing light. This unearthly music creates a beguiling paradox for the ear: you simultaneously hear a single, breathing sound-mass and the myriad barely moving strands within it. Time is suspended in an awe-inspiring miasma of micropolyphony.

Ligeti’s intention may not have been to conjure up images of cosmic dust or pulsing constellations, but Stanley Kubrick ingeniously realised the Hungarian composer’s visionary musical landscapes by including Atmosphères, and three other Ligeti works, in the soundtrack to his 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick would turn to other Ligeti works in The Shining (1980) and his final movie, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – both to disquieting effect. But his use of Atmosphères in 2001 stands out for creating a sense of unnerving isolation amid the universe’s unfathomable depths.

Listen to ‘Music and the Cosmos’ with Professor Brian Cox and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday 23 December at 2.00pm on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds

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Donovan Crow
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