The 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the American flag during the first Moon walk

Like many of us of a certain age, composer Michael Daugherty remembers watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing on television. It was the culmination of the Space Age, one of our era’s defining events, a moment that divided history into before and after. And Daugherty particularly remembers something that can be lost in the passage of time: there was no guarantee that the three astronauts would return.

“Back in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, my mother and father and four brothers and I all watched together,” he says. “I remember that it was an important media event, like The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, in that everyone, the world, was watching. Watching and wondering if they would make it there and back safely. There was a lot of suspense, whether it would be successful or not. President Nixon had prepared a speech to the nation in case a catastrophe happened, expressing condolences to the families. There was a high expectation that they would not make it back.”

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins did make it back, though, to a tickertape parade and international acclaim. And the landing date is enshrined as one of the great dates in history, a triumph for adventure, exploration and science. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that awe-inspiring achievement, and Daugherty has paid tribute to the Giant Leap for Mankind with a new work for orchestra, “To the New World.” Pacific Symphony, which commissioned the work, gives the piece its World Premiere April 11-13 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in a program that includes another “space-y” work, Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Daugherty had been Pacific Symphony’s composer-in-residence during the 2010-11 season, when he completed “Mount Rushmore” for chorus and orchestra, and is happy to be returning with something new.

“The Symphony said, ‘We have an idea for the piece, and we think you’re the person to do it,’” says Daugherty. “I thought, ‘Yes, that would be great, but oh my god, what am I going to do?’ And the work is paired with ‘Zarathustra,’ one of the greatest symphonic works of all time.  When you’ve got a work being performed, there are some other works you don’t want to be near: “Zarathustra,” “Rite of Spring,” Beethoven’s Ninth, “Carmina Burana”—all great orchestral masterpieces. I wanted to do something that would stand up next to the Strauss, and thought, ‘This is what emotionally I can connect with. Now I need a concept, a script, an idea, that gets me going.’ I work with whatever comes to mind, and then one thing leads to the next.”

Daugherty typically spends months researching and reading in preparation for the compositional process. In this case he visited the Neil Armstrong Museum (“It’s in Wapakoneta, Ohio, about two hours from where I live in Ann Arbor”), watched the film First Man, and watched the new movie Apollo 11 (“It’s phenomenal. They found fifty hours of footage they’d taken of the liftoff, which no one had ever seen before. It looks like you’re right there in the control room”). In the process, he discovered a few odd but useful facts about Armstrong, namely that he was a lifelong music fan and played euphonium during his time at Purdue University.

“When I discovered that, I decided to have a euphonium solo in the first movement,” he says. “The first movement is one of mystery, suspense, trepidation. So musically it’s more dissonant, more ambiguous, and mysterious.  But I do use echoes of the second movement of the Dvořák [on the voyage, Armstrong brought along a tape recording of Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, subtitled “From the New World”]. The echoes come in and out occasionally. I suppose that was maybe the astronauts thinking about going home. That they were going forward but also thinking about back home.

“Another thing, one of my teachers in the 1980s, György Ligeti, was famous for his music in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, as an homage to Ligeti, I’ve put in cluster chords, some other reference points and put my own framing and take on all that. The second movement is more of a whimsical movement because the astronauts had a great sense of humor. When they landed, they started to goof around, jumping, doing strange things, making jokes. It must have been a relief that they were on the moon finally. So the second movement is very whimsical. I also decided to use a soprano—I’ve never done this before—but there’s a singer who sits with the orchestra and is like a Theremin. The score asks for the vocalist to go ‘aaa’ and ‘ooo,” blending in with the orchestra, glissing up and down. Armstrong was a fan of the Theremin. There was some bachelor pad space music in the 50s that used the Theremin, and he liked it, so I reference that sound world.”

As for the final movement, “Splashdown,” Daugherty found inspiration in the mission name itself.

“I asked myself what can I do,” he said, “and then thought, ‘Apollo 11. Maybe I should write in 11/8 or 11/4.’ I’d never done that before, and had a blast. The 11-beat rhythm goes throughout, and it leads to a very catchy tune. I take the 11 over 4 and get these polyrhythms. It’s really cool.”

Underlying the music, though, is a stark realization: the landing was one of the few unifying moments in world history.

“It was an amazing time, when the whole nation rallied around these people,” he says. “JFK kept saying this was a peaceful mission for all mankind, and the entire world for one moment was one.  Millions of people were watching and it was one of those rare moments when the whole world came together, maybe because it was outside the world and we could put down our animosities. That it was happening so far outside. The moment was short-lived but that’s also what music does. It brings people from different walks of life into the hall to celebrate music. It’s unifying.”

Peter Lefevre has written for Opera News, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Orange County Register, among others.

The 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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