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Why Classical Music Snubbed Pluto, Too

It’s been four years since the International Astronomical Union (IAU) ruled that Pluto is no longer a planet, and the subject remains almost as divisive as the political rumble over climate change. But it turns out that Pluto was creating kerfuffles almost from the moment it was discovered—even among world-reknowned composers. If [like me] you’re...

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It’s been four years since the International Astronomical Union (IAU) ruled that Pluto is no longer a planet, and the subject remains almost as divisive as the political rumble over climate change.

But it turns out that Pluto was creating kerfuffles almost from the moment it was discovered—even among world-reknowned composers.

If [like me] you’re in the Washington, D.C., metro area, you might be headed to the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts tomorrow night for their first ever performance of The Planets in HD.

The show is a mashup of the classic orchestral suite by British composer Gustav Holst with high-definition videos of NASA and ESA planetary pictures, plus historical illustrations.
Watch a clip from “The Planets in HD” >>

Commissioned by the Chicago Sinfonietta in 2005, The Planets in HD was researched, produced, and directed by José Francisco Salgado, a professor and astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.

Salgado tells me that his mission in designing the show was “not to create a documentary, but to create art pieces that inspire people to learn more about Earth and the universe.

“They won’t learn the exact physical properties going on with each planet, but now they know these things are out there, and they’ll come out inspired to learn more about astronomy.”

The irony is that when Holst wrote his suite in the early 1900s, science was probably the last thing on his mind.

“He was more interested in the astrological aspects of the planets,” Salgado said. Each movement is supposed to convey the emotional influence a given planet has on people, based on their horoscopes.

When Holst started writing in 1914, he focused on seven planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Earth wasn’t included in his ode to astrology, since it’s hard for the planet you’re standing on to move into your ruling sign.
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Chicago Sinfonietta musicians get ready to rehearse in 2006.

—Photograph copyright José Francisco Salgado

Holst was alive for Pluto’s discovery in 1930, but while astronomers hailed Pluto as a new planet, the composer “showed no interest” in making a new movement, Salgado said.

For one thing, Pluto had no astrological meaning. For another, Holst “kind of resented the popularity of The Planets, because it overshadowed the rest of his catalog.”

By popular demand—and a commission from the Hallé Orchestra in the U.K.—there is a movement for Pluto, written by Holst scholar and composer Colin Matthews in 2000.

But you won’t find the demoted world in the HD show: Salgado didn’t make a Pluto video, because “we haven’t visited Pluto yet,” so there’s a dearth of high-end imagery.

To be fair, Salgado faced similar challenges with Mercury and Neptune.

He completed the work in 2006, two years before NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft arrived at Mercury to start a series of flybys before the craft settles into orbit in 2011.

Until that point, humans had collected pictures of only about half the tiny planet, and those date to the 1970s.

So Salgado decided to kill two birds with one stone.

“With those amazing movies from [NASA solar satellites] SOHO and TRACE, it’d be a shame not to include the sun,” he said.

“So, since Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, I said, I’m going to feature the sun [during the Mercury movement]. The segue is transits—”when planets pass in front of the sun as seen from Earth.

“I show both the transits of Mercury and transits of Venus … and then I show how dynamic the sun is, with prominences and sunspots.”

Similarly, there have not been many eyes trained on Neptune, now officially the farthest planet from the sun.

“We don’t have a lot of visuals of Neptune, and, you know, it’s a long movement,” Salgado said.

“Also, I don’t think just showing images of yet another gas giant is the way to conclude the piece. So I said, Ah-ha, this will be my reason to … actually leave the solar system.
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The Chicago Sinfonietta rehearses in 2006.

—Photograph copyright José Francisco Salgado

“We go through a few galactic objects, such as nebulae, and then we leave the galaxy and we fly through the universe, using images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.”

Now, after spending more than six months producing The Planets in HD and several years taking this show on the road, Salgado has moved on to a host of other projects, including a collaboration with former Thompson Twin Tom Bailey on the night sky and the founding of a nonprofit, dubbed KV265, to promote and produce art that communicates science.

But that doesn’t mean he’s given up on Pluto just yet.

“There’s a space probe called New Horizons that will get to Pluto in 2015, and when it does, I think it would be interesting to consider making a video for Pluto,” Salgado said.

“A lot of people have sympathy for that little guy, … and I think it will be fascintaing when we see those first really detailed images of Pluto.”

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