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Mars and music

By Kyle Gann

By long tradition, sweet Venus and mystical Neptune are the planets astrologically connected with music. The relevance of Mars, “the bringer of war” as one famous composition has it, would seem to be pretty oblique. Mars in the horoscope has to do with action, ego, how we separate ourselves off from the world; it is “the fighting principle for the Sun,” in the words of famous astrologer Liz Greene. Michel Gauquelin, who conducted a statistical test for the validity of astrology, found that Mars near the ascendant or midheaven in a person’s chart correlated heavily with choosing athletics or surgery as a career: it connects to physical competition and knives. Mars also rules everything military, and thus in music it is associated mainly with percussion. Most composers have egos, but musicians are not generally a physically aggressive bunch, and fighting isn’t our area. Many a famous composer sat out World War II playing in the Army band. (In high school I was thrilled that my simply taking music classes exempted me from the gym requirement — under the institutional assumption that all music students would get enough exercise in the marching band. I was a pianist.)

Claudio Monteverdi
And so Mars, in the classical music world, has been only an occasional acquaintance. There isn’t much classical music about athletics, though Arthur Honegger did write a rather punchy tone poem called Rugby (1928), and Charles Ives — a star baseball player in youth — portrayed a Yale-Princeton Football Game in music around 1899 as a kind of college prank. Music specifically about surgery may have yet to appear (and let’s leave Salomé out of this). Seeking a connection between Mars and music, Gustav Holst would probably leap to most minds, but I think first of Claudio Monteverdi. Holst, after all, had to give all his planets equal treatment, but it was Monteverdi who invented the “stile concitato,” the agitated style, to restore in music what he saw as a warlike mode known in poetry but historically absent in music. He made his theories explicit in his scenic cantata Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda of 1624, its poem a kind of forced sexual encounter disguised as a battle between armed rivals. Monteverdi makes it quite clear what he considered warlike tones: lots of quick repeated notes in a harmonic stasis. And if you think about it, that description applies equally well to “Mars” from Holst’s Planets (1914–16), with its hammering, one-note ostinato, and, as we’ll see below, to most other battle pieces as well. Considering the phenomenal evolution of the actual military, its musical signifiers have remained strikingly consistent.

Despite Monteverdi’s continued advocacy in some subsequent Madrigali guerrieri of 1638, the stile concitato did not establish itself as a broad genre. In the centuries following Il combattimento, depiction of martial action is rare enough in music for the well-known instances to be easily enumerated. The first of Johann Kuhnau’s Biblical History sonatas (1700) purports to describe David’s conflict with Goliath, once again with a profusion of quick repeated notes; also with “martial” rhythms such as streams of dotted eighths followed by sixteenths, or the snare-drum rhythm of an eighth and two sixteenths. The Battalia a 9 (1673) of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber is for only strings, but it too makes a fetish of chords in repeated notes. Its “Der Mars” movement, in addition, brilliantly asks for a piece of paper between the fingerboard and strings of the cello to make the instrument’s rhythmic drone sound plausibly like some kind of drum. Michel Corrette’s Combat Naval from his Harpsichord Divertimento No. 2 (1779) likewise starts off with repeated notes in snare-drum rhythms, and climaxes with forearm clusters that quite effectively signify cannon blasts. In Mozart’s and Haydn’s generations, even the presence of drums and cymbals was enough to suggest Turkish and thus military connotations (since what were the Turks there for, except to make war with?), as in Haydn’s “Military” Symphony, No. 100.

The advent of Romanticism, though, marked a turn at which war became demoted as a subject for serious musical treatment. Two of the 19th century’s most high-profile musical depictions — Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory (1813) and Liszt’s Hunnenschlacht (1857) — are considered among their most embarrassingly literal and superficial works. Bruckner did claim that the Plutonian finale of his Eighth Symphony (1887) depicted two emperors meeting on the field of battle, but that was rather after the fact, since he was trying to throw his lot in among the programmaticists. All this suggests, I think, distinct unease among classical musicians with things military or violent. Of course military music is sometimes appropriated to good effect, as in Berlioz’s Rakoczy March from The Damnation of Faust (1846). But despite Monteverdi’s heroic attempt to establish a martial mode, in retrospect classical attempts to depict battle tend to become anomalous oddities from history (Corrette, Biber) or humorous superficialities (Beethoven, Liszt).

Carl Nielsen
Finally, in the 20th century, the increase in dissonance and percussion brought at least a more respectable realism to battle music, though the carnage of the World Wars made anti-war statements more popular than celebrations of famous victories. Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony (1922) was a powerful response to the lunacy of World War I, with a first movement in which a solo snare drum seems determined to halt the progress of the orchestra, whose humanistic main theme finally overwhelms it. A couple of conflagrations later, Stravinsky made an anti-war statement in his Symphony in Three Movements (1945), partly inspired by film images of goose-stepping Nazi soldiers. Less ironically, George Antheil cheered the Allies along with his Fifth Symphony, subtitled “1942” and written that year as the fortunes of war were changing in North Africa. Shostakovich, in his Leningrad Symphony (1941), wrote melodies to symbolize the mutual approaches of the German and Russian armies, though the German theme is arguably a rather silly one; at least, Béla Bartók took savage delight in satirizing it in his Concerto for Orchestra. During the war even the more abstract-leaning Stefan Wolpe wrote a Battle Piece (1943-7) for piano — once again marked by repeated notes.

The massive War Requiem (1961-2) by the pacifist Benjamin Britten, however — perhaps its century’s grandest anti-war musical protest, filled with snare-drum march rhythms and trumpet fanfares suspended in uneasy irony — seems to close a curved trajectory that opened with Monteverdi’s Il combattimento. Whereas musicians once thought the military mode in music could be innocently brought up with historical interest or patriotic pride, today we invoke it only to condemn it. The Vietnam War era may have rendered any non-pejorative expression of Mars verboten for the foreseeable future. In recent years the pianist Sarah Cahill commissioned anti-war pieces from many composers (Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and Meredith Monk among them) for a project called “A Sweeter Music”; my own contribution, War Is Just a Racket, uses a 1933 text by General Smedley Butler, lamenting the army’s too-close ties to corporate interests.

Yet perhaps because Mars and Neptune were conjunct when I was born, I’ve written one un-ironic piece of battle music myself. Aside from the “Mars” movement of my own Planets (yes, I was foolhardy enough to compete with Holst, but my “Mars” is more complaining than belligerent), I depicted the battle of the Little Bighorn in my one-man electronic cantata Custer and Sitting Bull (1999), replete with sampled gunfire. The Sioux warriors are in one key, the US Cavalry in another a tritone away, and as they take turns the music jumps between two different tempos. But there’s something so peculiar about the expression of Mars in music that I have to wonder if, a couple of centuries from now, that battle scene will survive only as a curious anomaly, like Battalia a 9 or the Combat Naval or the battle of David and Goliath.

Kyle Gann is a composer who writes books about American music, including, so far; The Music of Conlon Nancarrow; American Music in the Twentieth Century; Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice; No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”; Robert Ashley; and, coming up in 2015, a book on Ives’s Concord Sonata. His music explores tempo complexity and microtonality. He writes the blog, Postclassic and teaches at Bard College.

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Recent Comments

  1. […] planet has also provided ideas to musicians as diverse as Gustav Holst and David Bowie, and populated the night skies of artists. And we cannot […]

  2. missyp

    Excellent article about mars and the musicians and diverse as gustav. Really enjoyed reading and learning about it. I am a huge fan of the mars and music Oxford Music Online – http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com is a great resource

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