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To the Moon . . . and Back

Kunar Ganapathy
Man in the Moon watching over us all

After nightly prayers were said and my mother tucked me in, kissed my cheek and shut off the light, I confess I sometimes got out of bed, ran to my bedroom window and said goodnight to the Man in the Moon. I could always make out his face, and I thought how lonely he must be to be looking over the Earth each night while probably no one ever bothered to chat with him. To this day I stop what I’m doing, and even pull over to the side of the road, just to stare at the beautiful Moon.

What is it about the Moon that has inspired poets and painters and composers to try to preserve the observational experience? We can suppose that the massive size and silvery beauty of our nearest space companion are factors in why artists continue to be so attracted to it as a subject.

Claude Debussy, for example, wrote a solo piano piece he titled “Promenade sentimentale,” in 1890, part of a larger four-section work titled Suite Bergamasque. It took him 15 years to finish the suite and to get it published! At some point between 1890 and 1905 Debussy read a poem by his friend, Paul Verlaine, titled “Clair de lune.” The three-verse poem ends:

With the calm moonlight, sad and lovely,
Which makes the birds dream in the trees,
And the plumes of the fountains weep in ecstasy,
The tall, slender plumes of the fountains among the marble sculptures.

By 1905 the “Promenade sentimentale” section had been renamed “Clair de lune,” or “Moonlight,” after his friend’s poem. Pascal Rogé plays it here:

Although part of the Suite, “Clair de lune” is often played (and recorded) as a stand-alone piece. This, however, is not the only “Clair de lune” that Debussy wrote! He also composed two other settings of the Verlaine poem for voice and piano. You could say he was “moonstruck!”

Another composer also wrote a “Clair de lune.” In his opera Pan Voyevoda, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov tells a tale of love, passion, jealousy, revenge, and then death. It’s a tangled web of who is in love with whom, and a whodunnit at the same time, but in the midst of the power plays and intrigue comes the light of the Moon to offer a moment’s serenity, “Nocturne: Clair de lune.” The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted here by Evgeny Svetlanov:

This opera was one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s least well-received works. Reviewers criticized the hard-to-follow storyline, yet praised the work for its graceful music.

Speaking of graceful, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky has a beautiful scene in his Swan Lake ballet with music titled “Lake in the Moonlight.” Prince Siegfried and his friends grab their longbows to hunt swans in the middle of the night, but the swans disappear quickly from view. A beautiful princess wearing a crown approaches them. Odette explains that she and her friends were the swans the prince was hunting, and that they had been cursed by an evil spell from an owl-like sorcerer. The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Igor Markevitch:

Hard to believe that audiences panned the ballet at the premiere, and even though some critics praised Tchaikovsky’s score, most criticized it for being too symphonic and even “Wagnerian.”

In 1838, Vincenzo Bellini wrote three songs in a collection he called Tre ariette inedite. In one of the songs, “Vaga luna che inargenti,” the singer asks the Moon to be his wingman. He tells the Moon that he is counting on it to tell his lady love his true feelings for her. Here’s the great Carlo Bergonzi, accompanied by pianist John Wustman:

You could assume that Bellini was channeling his own feelings into the song. He dedicated the song to the Italian writer, journalist and poet, Giulietta Pezzi. It turns out that she was so admired in her day that several songs by other composers were dedicated to her as well!

Here’s another song, but this time it’s a water nymph who is asking the Moon to help her out with her heart’s desire. In his opera, Rusalka, Antonín Dvořák tells the tale of the sea creature who has fallen in love with a human prince. She tells her father the Water Goblin that she wants to become human so she and the prince can fall in love in his world. Even though he warns against this, she asks a witch to help her. In her “Song to the Moon” Rusalka asks the Moon to shine and watch over her “dear:”

Moon, high and deep in the sky
Your light sees far,
You travel around the wide world,
And see into people’s homes.
Moon, stand still a while
And tell me where is my dear.
Tell him, silvery moon,
That I am embracing him.

Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade sings this concert version with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor Seiji Ozawa:

Spoiler alert . . . Rusalka does not have a happy ending. (But you can’t blame it on the moon!)

Johannes Brahms opens his Five Songs, Op. 106, with a song called “Serenade.” The German lyrics begin: “The Moon hangs over the mountain, so right for love-struck people.” Here is baritone Detrich Fischer-Dieskau:

Most of the song’s lyrics are not necessarily from a male or female perspective so they are often a choice for recital music for any singer.

Joseph Haydn also fell under the spell of the Moon, but not for the subject of a symphony, of which he wrote at least 104, but rather, as the subject of a comic opera. But hold that thought. In 1750 he composed music for a comic opera called Il mondo della luna (The World on the Moon), based on a libretto by Carlo Goldoni. Although other composers also used Goldoni’s libretto to various degrees of success, Haydn’s opera was used as entertainment during the wedding celebrations of Count Nikolaus Esterházy, son of his employer, Prince Esterházy.

It’s the story of a scam artist who plots to fool a rich but clueless man, take some of his money and marry one of his daughters by convincing the man that if he drinks a magic elixir, it will transport him to a kingdom on the Moon. When the now drunk man awakens, the scam artist’s friends perform an elaborate play to convince him that he is on the Moon. The fraud works but all ends well.

The Overture sounds like a typical Haydn piece. It is still often performed as a stand-alone. This is Claudio Abbado conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe:

In Act 1 of the opera, however, there is a less typical Haydn sound in a song titled “O luna lucente.” Here, the bogus astronomer and his students sing a hymn to the Moon: “O bright Moon, sister of Phoebus, how candid and beautiful you shine up there. Let our eyes approach yours and let us discover what you are.” Fabio Neri conducts the Orchestra of the Monteverdi di Blozano Conservatory:

A bit earlier I said Haydn didn’t write a “Moon” Symphony. That’s true; however, you could say a bit of the moon appeared in one of his symphonies! The Overture to Il mondo della luna was reused in the first movement of his Symphony No. 63.

And what about one of classical music’s most well-known “Moon” pieces, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, nicknamed the “Moonlight” Sonata? I admit I struggled a bit about including it in this blog post because Beethoven himself didn’t have the Moon in mind when he wrote it in 1801. The nickname was apparently born out of comments from the music critic Ludwig Rellstab who, in 1824, wrote about Beethoven’s first movement, “The lake reposes in twilit moon-shimmer, muffled waves strike the dark shore.”

The public took to the comparison of the music with the description and the nickname has stuck to this day. Daniel Barenboim honors Beethoven and the Moon here:

“We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams; —
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems."

Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Music and Moonlight: Poems and Songs

What is it about the Moon?

CODA: The 1987 movie, “Moonstruck,” contains a favorite Moon scene of mine. It’s actually a series of mini-scenes in which the various stars (including Olympia Dukakis, Cher, and Nicholas Cage), are drawn to a bright full Moon.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.