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Planetarium, Franeker



For quite a while I have been writing a new chamber orchestra piece, to be premiered by the Knussen Chamber Orchestra at Aldeburgh this summer. Its title is Planet, and it's a set of three orchestral studies inspired by the increasingly remarkable photographs of our planet, and galaxy, taken by spacecraft over the last thirty years. The images I chose came from Apollo 17, Voyager 1 and the Hubble Space Telescope.

 

One un-obvious feature of this project was the size of orchestra available. You'd perhaps hope to explore a huge, cosmic subject like this by means of a colossal Richard Strauss-sized symphony, with choir and electronics attached. Whereas I'd been commissioned (and thanks very much, Aldeburgh Festival, for doing so) for a Mozart concert; double woodwinds, two horns, trumpets, timps and modest strings.

 

But with perfect timing, a new inspiration beamed itself to me. This was a beautifully illustrated newspaper article about the Eise Eisinga Planetarium at Franeker in the Netherlands (completed in 1781, the year of Mozart's Idomeneo) which in September became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the sitting room ceiling of a modestly sized house, and operated by a clockwork-style mechanism in the loft, it accurately represents the changing positions of the earth, sun, moon and five neighbouring planets, in real time.

 

My visit to the Netherlands this month allowed time to drive up to Franeker (over the Afsluitdijk, another impressive Dutch construction) and at last visit this special place about which I'd read so much. In such circumstances it's always possible to be disappointed by the reality. But if anything, the actual Planetarium was even more ingenious, beautiful and descriptive than I had previously guessed. The perfect model, in fact, for a composer trying to fit thousands of impressions into eighty pages of A3 manuscript paper,

 

 

 

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer

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