If you were going to the moon, what music would you take with you for the roughly three-day journey? There’s the obvious playlist choices: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (which, it should be noted, wasn’t so named during the composer’s lifetime), Debussy’s Clair de lune, and the “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka. Or there are some slightly less familiar lunar classics. Both Benjamin Britten and his teacher Frank Bridge composed depictions of the moon at sea. Britten’s came as one of the Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes; Bridge’s is a movement of his tone poem The Sea.
A stunning moment in Richard Strauss’ opera Capriccio is this “Moonlight Music”. Jacques Offenbach wrote an opera-ballet called The Voyage to the Moon (based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon) and Joseph Haydn has an opera called Life on the Moon (sometimes translated as The World on the Moon), which, as you might guess, takes place on the moon. It’s the wrong planet, but Judith Lang Zaimont has written a work for solo piano called Jupiter’s Moons. There’s lunar choral music by Florence Price (the songs The Moon Bridge and The New Moon) and numerous Chinese folk songs which reference the moon like Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake by Lu Wencheng and Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon by Ren Guang.
All are good choices for a going-to-the-moon playlist. But it begs the question, what did the NASA astronauts listen to on their missions to the moon? Thanks to mission transcripts, we actually know. Neil Armstrong brought a cassette recording of the album Music Out of the Moon, by Les Baxter and Harry Revel, featuring Theremin player Samuel Hoffman. Today, it is the best-selling Theremin recording of all time.
Several astronauts are big classical music fans, particularly Frank Borman and Jim Lovell of the Gemini 7 mission. During their 14-day orbit, their playlist (piped up to the spacecraft from mission control in Houston and dubbed “mood music”) included Puccini’s opera La bohème, Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, and Handel’s Water Music.
Jim Lovell was also the commander for the Apollo 13 mission. The Command Module was named Odyssey, so he brought a tape of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra along with him. (Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which famously uses the same Strauss music, had been released just two years prior.)
Apollo 16 astronaut Ken Mattingly is also a classical music fan. After dispatching his crewmates John Young and Charlie Duke to the surface of the moon, he cranked up a recording of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique as he orbited the moon by himself.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, it’s pretty clear there’s no wrong way to celebrate musically. If it were me (and, as someone whose first Halloween costume was an astronaut, let me tell you, I wish I had the courage, discipline, and intelligence to let it be me), I feel like something involving the harp would be on my playlist. Probably this new Harp Concerto by Jennifer Higdon, which begins with a movement called “First Light”.
Another pick would likely be something choral—for example, Stars, by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, seems right. Some chamber music would definitely be on the playlist, including the String Quartet No. 3 by Alan Hovhaness, the Piano Quintet by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (which includes variations on his song “Moon, thou risest thus again” in the slow movement), and all of the string quartets by Caroline Shaw.
In the solo piano realm, I’m fairly certain Valentin Silvestrov’s Der Bote would be on my going-to-the-moon playlist alongside a bunch of works by the Venezuelan composer Teresa Carreño, like this Ballade, Op. 15, the late Sonatas of Franz Schubert, and Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
And, yeah, there would be plenty of big orchestral stuff too. More Richard Strauss tone poems, including (now, stay with me here) Death and Transfiguration (with emphasis on the latter, not the former), the Symphony No. 1 by Ellen Taafe Zwillich, Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloe, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.
What about for you? If you were going to the moon, what music would you bring?