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Celestial Soundtrack: Music for Pitiable Pluto and Other Cosmic Phenomena

PLUTO. Photo from NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute).

This weekend the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra is performing Gustov Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, and the program got me thinking. Holst has movements for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune…  What about poor old Pluto? 

First, some details: Performances are Saturday and Sunday, January 28 and 29, 2012, at 8:00 pm and 4:00 pm, respectively, in the Atwood Concert Hall of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available through CenterTix and range from $15 to $42. (For the bargain prices, go Sunday.) 

Accompanying the orchestra will be a projected video of high-def images of the planets from space, assembled and choreographed for Holst’s music by astronomer and Emmy-nominated visual artist Dr. José Francisco Salgado from Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. This will be really cool. Read more about it in this article in the Anchorage Daily News, or go to the Loussac Library with a bag lunch on Friday, January 27 at noon to hear a free talk by Dr. Salgado and ASO’s Maestro Fleischer. There will also be free, 30-minute lectures an hour before each performance in the Atwood lobby by ASO personnel. 

Back to Pluto. Holst composed The Planets in 1916, before Pluto was discovered in 1930. But Holst was certainly alive in 1930, and yet I can find no evidence that he even considered adding a movement for the newfound planet. Humpf. Happily, in 2000, British composer Colin Matthews came to the rescue with a Pluto appendix for Holst’s work. Relief! Acceptance! Finally, Pluto had his day. But the triumph was short-lived; in 2006, the International Astronomical Union adopted a narrower definition of “planet”, to the exclusion of woeful Pluto, which was officially reclassified as “dwarf planet”. Children wrote (adorable) hate mail, but changed nothing. Pluto had fallen. 

After all this disgrace, it seems to me that Pluto deserves more than one, after-the-fact movement. This is not to denigrate Matthews’s piece, which is eerie and way cool, but Jupiter has an entire symphony, Mozart’s No. 41 (which is, by the way, also on the ASO program this weekend). And Jupiter is mostly just gas! It seems to me that solid Pluto deserves not just Matthews’s excellent piece but a full symphony, too. 

And I would like to suggest a candidate. Just as Mozart’s No. 41 was posthumously dubbed Jupiter, I say we do the same for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique, and add the sobriquet Pluto. The symphony roller-coasters through passion, jubilation, then ends in utter pathos, just like Pluto’s eccentric solar orbit — and history of Earthly esteem. 

Let’s not stop at Pluto. Fellow dwarf planet Ceres has an orchestral piece of its own, as do several asteroids. But until we can raise the funds to commission new music for all space features, perhaps we can rededicate existing musical works to honor fascinating cosmic phenomena. 

Here are some humble suggestions for a fuller Celestial Soundtrack. 


What do you think? What have I missed? Your comments are very welcome.