The Musical Helios

Our Sun in the Music of Haydn, Debussy, Hartke and Respighi

Our Sun’s power—over our very being and in our imaginations—has historically come more from what we didn’t know and were willing to speculate. At a distance of ninety-three million miles from Earth it gives us life, warming us in its light and charring us in its heat. If knowledge is really power, why has increasing knowledge about the Sun left us feeling less powerful? The closer we get—in optics or in flight—the more we wonder, worship, and sigh.

In choosing to contemplate the Sun in our Winter Festival Forum and Concert, whether in music, poetry, or nature, we increasingly come full circle—not just in a single day, or throughout the life cycle—but in making us one with the rest of humanity, who in various centuries wondered, worshiped, and sighed even as we do today.

Haydn String Quartet in B–flat major, Hob. III:78, “Sunrise”
Debussy La Mer (arr. for Piano Four Hands)
Hartke The King of the Sun: Tableaux for Piano Quartet
Respighi Il Tramonto (The Sunset), for Voice and String Quartet

The best introduction to our Musical Helios concert will be in the free forum at 1:30 pm in Kresge Auditorium. Leon Golub, a senior astrophysicist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, will be joined by MIT’s climate scientist Kerry Emanuel to speak about the Sun as we now know it, and its effect on the Earth and storms like those depicted in Debussy’s La Mer. Michael Scott Cuthbert, MIT’s medievalist and musicologist, will speak about Stephen Hartke’s The King of the Sun (1988) and how it is based on a poem and music mis-attributed to Flemish composer Johannes Ciconia (c. 1370–1412) and related to paintings by 17th-century Dutchman Jan Steen as well as 20th-century Catalan Joan Miró.

Le Ray au Soleyl

Le ray au soleyl qui dret som karmeyne
En soy bracant la douce tortorelle
Laquel compagnon onques renovelle
A bon droyt sembla que en toy perfect reyne

The ray of sunlight, in whose true enchantment
sleeps the sweet turtledove–in his embrace–
ever rejuvenating that beloved one;
faithfully makes his appearance in your kingdom

After the sun has risen and played on the waves in Debussy, and Hartke has whimsically played on the meaning of ‘Ray’ of sunlight to ‘Rey’, or King, our program concludes with the sigh of grief at the loss of love and life captured so vividly in the 1816 poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley and set in translation for voice and string quartet by Respighi one hundred years later.



One thought on “The Musical Helios

  1. Here’s the text for Shelley’s poem The Sunset

    Written at Bishopsgate, 1816 (spring). Published in full in the “Posthumous Poems”, 1824. Lines 9-20, and 28-42, appeared in Hunt’s “Literary Pocket-Book”, 1823, under the titles, respectively, of “Sunset. From an Unpublished Poem”, And “Grief. A Fragment”.

    There late was One within whose subtle being,
    As light and wind within some delicate cloud
    That fades amid the blue noon’s burning sky,
    Genius and death contended. None may know
    The sweetness of the joy which made his breath _5
    Fail, like the trances of the summer air,
    When, with the Lady of his love, who then
    First knew the unreserve of mingled being,
    He walked along the pathway of a field
    Which to the east a hoar wood shadowed o’er, _10
    But to the west was open to the sky.
    There now the sun had sunk, but lines of gold
    Hung on the ashen clouds, and on the points
    Of the far level grass and nodding flowers
    And the old dandelion’s hoary beard,
    On the brown massy woods—and in the east
    The broad and burning moon lingeringly rose
    Between the black trunks of the crowded trees,
    While the faint stars were gathering overhead.— _20
    ‘Is it not strange, Isabel,’ said the youth,
    ‘I never saw the sun? We will walk here
    To-morrow; thou shalt look on it with me.’
    That night the youth and lady mingled lay
    In love and sleep—but when the morning came _25
    The lady found her lover dead and cold.
    Let none believe that God in mercy gave
    That stroke. The lady died not, nor grew wild,
    But year by year lived on—in truth I think
    Her gentleness and patience and sad smiles, _30
    And that she did not die, but lived to tend
    Her aged father, were a kind of madness,
    If madness ’tis to be unlike the world.
    For but to see her were to read the tale
    Woven by some subtlest bard, to make hard hearts _35
    Dissolve away in wisdom-working grief;—
    Her eyes were black and lustreless and wan:
    Her eyelashes were worn away with tears,
    Her lips and cheeks were like things dead—so pale;
    Her hands were thin, and through their wandering veins _40
    And weak articulations might be seen
    Day’s ruddy light. The tomb of thy dead self
    Which one vexed ghost inhabits, night and day,
    Is all, lost child, that now remains of thee!
    ‘Inheritor of more than earth can give, _45
    Passionless calm and silence unreproved,
    Whether the dead find, oh, not sleep! but rest,
    And are the uncomplaining things they seem,
    Or live, or drop in the deep sea of Love;
    Oh, that like thine, mine epitaph were—Peace!’ _50
    This was the only moan she ever made