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Full Moon Shines Over Planet Phelps

Aug 2, 2012  - Craig Lord

Ah! The full moon - look up. There it is tonight over London and the world. Shining bright for a cancerian who tonight wrote another line in a masterpiece composed by Bob Bowman, played out by the protagonist to end them all in the pool.

Bowman, the music-scholar maestro who wrote the notes to the swimming symphony of the greatest Olympian in history, had been humming Dvořák's 7th this season. How apt. Composed in 1884, the work breathes, said the coach, of "sentimentality, melancholy, sadness, struggle and defiant triumph". It also leans on the notion of legacy through struggle and strife and was written with a London premiere in mind.

As I waited for a taxi to take me to the airport after US Olympic trials in Omaha a month ago, Bowman said: "Holst, The Planets … I'll be interested to see what you make of that."

Music derived from astrology is rare. Great music even more so. Gustav Holst: The Planets Suite. From the ancient Greeks and philosophers to those who check the stars column in their local paper, humans have long been fascinated by astrological teachings.

The Greeks came up with the "Music of the Spheres", the idea that these vast bodies whirling and twirling through space, must surely hum as they go, must surely sing in space. They knew of seven planets: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and Western music evolved with seven-tone scales. Gustav Holst brought music and astrology together again in his suite devoted to the seven planets, the Sun and Moon displaced by Uranus and Neptune. 

The Planets Suite was first performed in the autumn of 1918. Here's a summary:

  • Mercury: The Winged Messenger - like listening to a cosmic butterfly
  • Venus: The Bringer of Peace - beauty, refinement, the counter to the untamed violence of Mars
  • Mars: The Bringer of War - unrelenting, merciless, brutish, the stuff of war 
  • Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity  - benevolent, generous, Jupiter come down from Olympus to flirt with mere mortals - recognising that quality in self. 
  • Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age - serene, deliberate, stoic, acceptance of mortality and the end of things
  • Uranus: The Magician - ruler of astrological Aquarius. The magician is bumbling and accident prone but a born performer who cannot resist just one more try, obsession deemed as mad as the dark side of the moon but masking wisdom of the eternal, the ultimate prize.
  • Neptune: The Mystic - eternity in Neptune's watery depths … and choirs of aquatic angels.

Back to Dvorak and the London Philharmonic society had invited him to write a symphony as a new honorary member. The theme came to him on a daily stroll he would take to Prague station. One evening, trains were delivering folk to the National Theatre in Prague, where a musical evening was to be held in support of the Czech nation's political struggles. Dvorak, marrying the big theme to his own struggle to reconcile his desire for a simple and peaceful life with his intense patriotism and desire to see the Czech nation flourish, completed a sketch of the 1st movement in just five days. 

He wrote to a friend: "I am now busy with this symphony for London, and wherever I go I can think of nothing else. God grant that this Czech music will move the world." The work rolls through moments of serene calmness, turmoil and inclement weather.

In the epic tale of Bowman-Phelps, the tone of turmoil nods to motivation in a man who achieved so much so young and could have walked away from Beijing and the sport the greatest of them all without a single further stroke swum. He opted not to.

Dvorak told his publisher that in the 7th "there is not one superfluous note". In 1885 the symphony went down like a storm, its first performance at St James's Hall, London, with Dvořák conducting, widely acclaimed as a master work, one considered to reflect the composer at the height of his powers. A modern assessment of Dvorak's 7th runs: "The 7th is the most ambitious in structure, and the most consciously international in its message."

Tonight we caught a glimpse of all of that and wallowed in the music of The Planets as it sung to us from a thousand miles out to the sea bed. It was magnificent in scope, like that full moon shining in all its serenity.

Here's a touch of what happened and how