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  • Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 47: Living Earth

Good morning, friends! Last Thursday was Earth Day, and this coming Friday, April 30, is Arbor Day. I’m guessing a good number of you are more familiar with those than last week’s Patriots’ Day….

In music, whenever I think of Earth, nature, and the environment, I think of the composer David Maslanka. He was a deeply spiritual person, with a great love, appreciation, and connection to nature—and the music of JS Bach—that can be heard and felt in virtually every one of his pieces. Sadly, Maslanka passed away in 2017, very shortly after the death of his wife.


This week, we’ll be covering his Sixth Symphony, subtitled “Living Earth,” one of his only orchestral works in the genre. Maslanka wrote his own detailed notes on the piece; so, rather than try to paraphrase those, I thought I’d explain why I feel such a connection to this particular piece…aside from his wonderful use of Bach chorales :)


The Sixth Symphony was commissioned by my dear friend and former teacher, James Allen Anderson. Now the orchestra conductor at the University of Delaware (where I was his first graduate student), Jim previously spent many years building the orchestra program at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. I have had many friends attend ASU over the years, and more than a few of them took part in the premiere of this piece. It’s a tremendously powerful, beautiful, and moving work, that sounds like quintessential Maslanka…and that’s a very good thing. Enjoy! :)


**Below are Maslanka’s own notes for his Sixth Symphony.**


I believe that the earth is a living thing, and that humans are part of its consciousness. We have created an environmental crisis that we must go through before we come to a right relationship with the planet. This Symphony is an expression of hope for that right relationship.


Symphony No. 6 is in five movements, each of which embodies one or more melodies from the Bach Chorales. These melodies are old, having sources which go back thousands of years. Like folk music they embody a huge life force, and I now think of them as melodies of the earth. The music of this Symphony is joyous and hopeful.


From my childhood on I have felt an extremely strong connection to place. It took a lot of years for me to understand this connection and to have the energy from it come forward in my music. I now believe that the earth is a living thing, and that humans are one part of its consciousness. I have been aware of a powerful “voice of the earth” for many years, and especially in my adopted western Montana. The voice speaks of both a powerful life force and impending disaster. I had a small epiphany a couple of years ago; something spoke in my mind that the earth would not be destroyed by human hands. Even if I made this up it is still a good idea! One of my life axioms is that there is no progress without crisis, and there is crisis to go through before we come to a right relationship with the planet. The new Symphony is my expression of hope for that right relationship.


I don’t plan out music intellectually. I have to know a lot in order to write a symphony, but that knowledge is for the sake of allowing something to speak which is beyond my intellect. In the same way that I have been drawn to place, I have also been drawn to the Chorales of J.S. Bach~ a purely intuitive coming together. The Bach chorales are much like the arrangements of sacred melodies found in hymnals, except that Bach wrote better alto, tenor and bass parts! The melodies themselves are much older than Bach, having sources that literally go back thousands of years. Like all folk melodies they are the products of generations of singers working with the same melody ideas, and finally arriving at simple tunes that embody a huge life force. These are now melodies of the earth. For a number of years now I have brought them into my music where they have acted as a springboard for my imagination, and an open path for the bigger voice that wants to speak through me. I often feel that the chorale melodies select themselves to be in a particular piece, and in retrospect I can see that they will add to the music a subtext of meaning all their own.

There are six chorale melodies in the Symphony:

I. Living Earth 1

How empty, how fleeting…

Only trust in God to guide you

II. Rain

From heaven above I come…

III. November – Geese on the Wing

O how blessed

IV. Dreamer

Jesus Christ, our Savior…

V. Living Earth 2

My soul exalts the Lord

What the story is in all of this I will leave up to you!


A small quote from Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann has been with me for a long time. In it Mann describes Eliezer, the tribal story teller and oral historian: “…the old man’s ego was not clearly demarcated … it opened at the back, as it were, and overflowed into spheres that were external to his own individuality both in space and in time; embodying in his own experience events which, remembered and related in the clear light of day, ought actually to have been put in the third person….”



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