March 15, 2021
Time, love & madness: The Moon in classical music
The spring equinox marks the beginning of the astronomical spring in the Northern Hemisphere and brings with it an air of change. In astronomy, the March equinox marks the zero point of right ascension and is celebrated differently by many cultures and religions around the world.
That’s nice, you may be thinking, but what does this have to do with music? Well, elements of astronomy are recurring themes in classical music, including some of the most popular pieces in the repertoire (Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Holst’s “The Planets” come to mind). In opera, the heavens inspire beautiful arias and famous melodies, and even provide vital plot points. Most prevalent, of course, is the heavenly object that’s closest to home: the moon.
When the moon is found in music or writing, it can symbolize a number of things. Mentions of the moon often identify the cyclical nature of time. In astrology, the moon is the symbol of the soul, determining if one is ready for change, reflection, or adaptation. The phases of the moon as we see them on Earth symbolize immortality or eternity, as the moon moves endlessly around our planet. The moon can also represent feminine energy of power and fertility, often portrayed through characteristics such as love, empathy, nurturing, and intellect. Finally, the moon can sometimes signify mystery or madness, representing secrets and knowledge beyond human understanding. In all of these meanings, the moon holds important power over the emotions and actions of those it watches over—power that proves critical in many operas.
All of these symbols can be found in classical and operatic music that center around the moon. But what songs/arias should we talk about?
Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka — “Song to the Moon”
One of the most celebrated arias about the moon comes from Dvořák’s exquisite fairytale opera Rusalka. The heroine, a water nymph, pleads to the moon to send a message to her beloved to come find her. She’s waiting for him, even though she knows her love for a human prince could rob her of her immortality and speech, and could lead to the prince’s death. The moon here is essentially a messenger—the conduit between Rusalka’s soul and her true love—in an aria that audiences adore the world over.
Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune” from the Suite Bergamasque
Debussy’s moon in “Clair de lune” is one of tranquility and peace, a symbol of comfortable eternity. The piece’s title is French for “moonlight” but was originally titled "Promenade Sentimentale," meaning a “sentimental walk,” inferring that Debussy means to evoke the feeling of a walk in the moonlight. This piano movement in the Suite Bergamasque is one of his most famous and can be found in many movies and television shows, most prominently in the Twilight and Ocean’s Eleven franchises.
Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah — “Ain't it a pretty night?”
Susannah is one of the most frequently performed of all American operas. In this retelling of the Old-Testament Book of Susannah, set in rural Tennessee, the heroine looks up at the stars and moon and sings to them about what it would be like to leave her home town and travel to the mountains. Susannah’s aria, “Ain’t it a pretty night?”, is an example of women in opera channeling the moon’s feminine energy, longing for a different life, a change.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata"
The "Moonlight Sonata" is one of classical piano’s most famous pieces, but Beethoven didn’t actually give this song its title. It wasn’t until years after his death that a critic wrote that the piece reminded him of moonlight shining on a lake, and the title stuck. Beethoven did, however, add direction regarding how the piece should be played: quasi una fantasia—like a fantasy. There are three movements; the first two are spirited and understated, followed by a raging final movement, all unlike anything anyone had ever heard in its day. The power of the moon is palpable in each of these movements and it looks like that critic had the right idea.
Ricard Wagner’s Tannhäuser — “O du mein holder Abendstern”
This “Song to the Evening Star” is sung by the baritone character, Wolfram, in the third act of Wagner’s opera. He calls on the evening star to guide the saintly Elisabeth out of the valley of death on her way to heaven. Deceptively simple in its melodic line, the aria demands the most profound expressiveness. Wolfram seems to come to terms with having been truly in love as he sings to the stars, symbolizing that sense of change and rebirth within him, however devastating the realization is.
Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire
We’ve heard of love struck, but is it possible to be moonstruck? Another common theme in classical music is the idea that madness and lunacy can come from the moon. In Schönberg’s melodrama (spoken text with instrumental accompaniment), Pierrot is a 20th-century version of a commedia dell'arte clown who delivers three sets of poems, encompassing themes of love, sex and religion; then violence, crime, and blasphemy; and finally the haunting nature of the past. The harrowing monologue of Sprechstimme, or speech-singing, reminds listeners once again of the overwhelming power of the moon.
Leos Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr. Brouček to the Moon and to the 15th Century
This lesser-known Czech opera is based loosely on a novel by Svatopluk Cech. In Part 1 of the opera, Mr. Brouček, a man who may have had too much to drink, imagines he is transported to the moon, where he meets a group of fascinating artists and intellectuals. In Part 2, he is transported to 15th-century Czechoslovakia. The book, and ultimately the opera, are satiric commentaries, indicating that one might find more interesting people on the moon than among the Czech bourgeoisie of the late 19th century. The opera also features Etherea, the lunar maiden, continuing the feminine-energy narrative of the moon and the wonder with which Mr. Brouček becomes enveloped during his imaginary trip. This opera, kitschy but still poignant, really explores the alluring mystery of the moon.
Joseph Haydn’s Il mondo della luna (The World on the Moon)
Speaking of comic operas, Haydn wrote this one for the 1777 wedding of his employer, Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy. The opera presents a fake astronomer who tries to convince other people to believe that they can see things on the moon through his special telescope, and even fly to it! A woman even convinces her father (after slipping him an elixir) that he’s attending her wedding on the moon, to trick him into allowing her to marry the real man of her dreams. The opera was disliked at its premiere, but Haydn later reused portions of the overture in the first movement of his Symphony No. 63. It’s also unique that every moment in the opera relating to the moon is written in the most dulcet of all keys, E flat, meant to reflect the softness, warmth, and mystery that comes with the feeling of moonlight.
Who knew there were so many moments in opera and classical music dedicated to the moon? Explore some of these arias and songs further and who knows—maybe you’ll find meaningful reflection or even be driven to madness!
Photos: Robert Kusel and Todd Rosenberg