Entertainment & Arts

Behind the Proms' celestial opening number

Zosha Di Castri's latest work looks at humankind's evolving relationship with the moon
Image caption Zosha Di Castri's latest work looks at humankind's evolving relationship with the moon

The BBC Proms blasts off on Friday with a musical exploration of the moon.

The season opens with Zosha Di Castri's latest work Long Is the Journey - Short Is the Memory, which marks the 50th anniversary of the lunar landings.

The piece examines how humanity has "looked to the moon over different time periods and different cultures," she told BBC News.

It's not only the composer's Proms debut, but the first time her music has ever been played in the UK.

"It's a crazy way to begin but I'm very honoured," she told BBC News.

The 1969 moon landings are a running theme in this year's Proms season, with highlights including a Sci-Fi prom featuring scores from films such as Gravity and Alien: Covenant.

Elsewhere, Public Service Broadcasting will debut an orchestral arrangement of their 2015 album The Race for Space, which features archive film recordings and vintage electronic instruments.

Di Castri's work was inspired by three pieces of writing - Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi's haunting Alla Luna, in which a man sees his grief reflected in the moon's face; Sappho's The Moon, in which the ancient Greek poet writes about the silvery brightness of the night sky; and a new text by novelist Xiaolu Guo, which reflects both ancient Chinese legends and the recent Chang'e-4 exploration of the far side of the moon.

Their words are fragmented throughout the piece, while the title, Long Is the Journey - Short Is the Memory, is lifted from Leopardi's verse.

"I was thinking about how much energy and man-power and resources had gone into exploration of the moon," says Di Castri, "and then it seemed like, once we had achieved that, people kind of forgot about it. There was a noticeable lag in enthusiasm until perhaps just recently."

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (pictured) were the first people to set foot on the moon, on 20 July 1969

Researching the piece left a big impression on the composer, who'd never before considered the monumental human effort behind the moon landings.

"To be honest, it was something that I took as fact - that we've been to the moon," she laughs. "In the same way that, as a child, you learn that the earth is round and not flat, and you just accept that's the way it is.

"I always knew that people had been on the moon - but this brought back the sense of awe."

Zosha Di Castri's fantasy lunar playlist
1) Mary Margaret O'Hara - Don't Be Afraid
2) Tom Waits - Anywhere I Lay My Head
3) Roberta Flack - First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
4) Bernice - Passenger Plane
5) Bjork - Anchor Song
6) Tanya Tagaq in Puebla Mexico (live performance)
7) John Luther Adams - Canticles of the Holy Wind
8) Charles Ives - The Unanswered Question

Listen to Zosha's playlist on Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube.

The classical pieces commonly associated with space travel, like Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, or Holst's Mars, are typically full of rattling percussion and piercing stabs of brass.

Di Castri says her work has "moments of bombast", especially as she depicts the feverish hype of the US-Russia space race. But once Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step out of the lunar module, the atmosphere changes.

"I like to think of that moment, of walking on the moon and being so far from Earth and experiencing this landscape for the first time as being much more subtle and ethereal," she says.

"I was trying to get into the awe and wonder of what that felt like, so the choir's doing a lot of whispering, atmospheric sounds. The sopranos have a solo and the orchestra and rest of the chorus provides a textured soundscape. Time feels stretched out."

The 34-year-old is one of more than 20 composers commissioned to create new work for the 2019 Proms season, with premieres coming from the likes of Hans Zimmer, Jonathan Dove and Huw Watkins, who is also writing an ode to the moon.

So would Di Castri be prepared to strap herself into a rocket and swing on a star in real life?

"Oh my goodness, yes," she says. "But I'd probably be terrified."

The First Night of the Proms takes place at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday 19 July. It will be broadcast in full on BBC Radio 3. On television, the first half will be shown live on BBC Two, with the second half on BBC Four.

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