Revisiting Holst’s Jupiter a hundred years later

Credit: Dr Leigh Fletcher

Reworking of Holst’s Planets suite benefits from insights from Leicester planetary scientist

One of the greatest works of classical music has been reimagined for the 21st century with the help of the astronomical skills of one of our space scientists.

Dr Leigh Fletcher, an expert in the exploration of Jupiter from our Department of Physics and Astronomy, was asked to work alongside British composer Richard Bullen to help produce an audacious new version of Gustav Holst’s Jupiter from his famous Planets suite.

Holst’s The Planets was premiered exactly one hundred years ago. Shaped by an astrological understanding of the planets, this ground-breaking piece became a mainstream classic. Live Music Sculpture and Sound UK mark its centenary by asking: what would music inspired by current planetary science sound like in the hands of today’s composers?

Reflecting developments in astronomy and music, The Planets 2018 commissioned eight leading composers, spanning contemporary classical, electronica and jazz, to create new works inspired by the science of our solar system, to be performed in planetariums. Each created a new 5-minute piece for string quartet that responds to both their chosen planet and the unique design of these full-dome venues.

To inform and inspire them, each composer was matched with one of the UK’s leading scientists, working at the forefront of astronomy and passionate about widening its audience.

Royal Society University Research Fellow (URF) and Associate Professor in Planetary Sciences Dr Fletcher has been working with Richard Bullen on his piece based upon Jupiter. Dr Fletcher has spent much of his career studying the gas giants in our solar system, having worked on the Cassini mission to Saturn, the JUICE mission to Jupiter, and as a member of the University’s science team for NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter. He will be attending and speaking at the final, sold out, performance of the new compositions by the Ligeti Quartet at the Thinktank Planetarium in Birmingham on 2 October.

“When I was first asked to participate in this project in the spring, I felt his was a totally unique opportunity to engage with a new audience,” explains Dr Fletcher.  “Richard and I spent a number of hours, over coffee and online, exploring how our understanding of Jupiter has evolved since 1918.  For example, the four Galilean moons went from being mere points of light to being fully-resolved and enticing worlds, from volcanic Io, to Europa’s deep hidden ocean, to giant Ganymede’s magnetic field, and to battered and ancient Callisto.”  

Dr Fletcher was keen for the new composition to be informed by the very latest cutting-edge research.  “NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been orbiting the giant planet since July 2016, revealing what it might be like to plunge through the ever-changing aurora, down to the clouds, churning cyclones and powerful winds of the atmosphere, and into a deep, calm and exotic interior.  Richard took these newly-discovered wonders and used them to shape his ambitious new creation.”

The Planets presents 8 distinct sound worlds, with each new piece of music introduced by the recorded voice of comedian and University of Leicester honorary graduate Jon Culshaw (Dead Ringers, Newzoids and Spitting Image), a lifelong astronomy enthusiast and part of The Sky at Night team.

Internationally renowned for pushing the possibilities of the string quartet, the Ligeti Quartet has been performing The Planets 2018 in quadraphonic sound, alongside live visuals, in full dome planetariums across the UK. The Planets 2018 audio will also be available to experience online streamed from Sound UK and partner websites for a period of 12 months.