Cosmic Corner: LIBRA – A FINE BALANCE featured image

LIBRA (September 23 – October 22)

“EVERYBODY likes the cello!” So declares a good friend of mine — a cellist — on a regular basis. Shameless as that statement is coming from her, she’s right. Pretty much everybody does like the cello. And when it comes to astrology, Libra is the “cello” of the Zodiac. What’s not to like? They’re so pleasant, so attentive, so reasonable!

Beginning at the Autumn Equinox, when the days and nights have equal weight, Libra is symbolized by the scales. Librans strive for balance. As such, they are thoughtful, and are known for being able to detach and approach issues rationally. They are keenly aware of others, and are the first in the room to make sure everyone is getting what they need. Harmony is their priority.

But being a Libra is tougher than it looks. Famed for their ability to see all sides and options, Librans often suffer from indecision. They are constantly grappling with the tension of reconciling opposing interests, and have a hard time hanging onto their own truths in the midst of it all. Rarely will they want to choose, because any choice might upset the balance they so urgently seek, and which exists with such perfection in their minds…

But in the world of music this search for balance, with all its tensions and ambivalence, can have stunning results:

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (October 12, 1872) used his Libran mandate to strike a balance between the erudite world of the concert hall and the musical landscape of the English working class. At the same time as he was writing avant garde, atonal symphonies, Vaughan Williams was traveling across the English landscape collecting the nation’s folk songs. He compiled these into anthologies, saving this rich resource from encroaching extinction brought on by a shifting society. Further, Vaughan Williams, a true Libra, insisted he must “make his art an expression of the whole life of the community.” Reconciling the folk song with the concert hall in his countless skillful and gorgeous orchestral arrangements, Vaughan Williams succeeded in endowing his ‘community,’ the nation of Britain, with a strong sense of itself and its roots.

Across the Atlantic, George Gershwin (September 26, 1898) was reconciling another set of opposites. The Brooklyn-born composer grew up in the Yiddish Theatre district, and had an ear well-tuned to the popular music of the era. Though he travelled abroad to learn from the European masters he admired, in the end it would be his knowledge of American music that set him apart. In works such as Rhapsody in Blue and his Concerto in F, Gershwin took jazz harmonies, melodies and rhythms and fused them with the forms and techniques of European art music, bringing jazz into the mainstream. His Libran straddling of styles reached its apex in the folk opera Porgy and Bess. Both an opera and a musical — and neither — the controversial work from 1935 was an early and bold desegregation of musical Black and White America.

Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich (September 25, 1906) grappled with a very different challenge: how to strike a balance between artistic integrity and political necessity. A composer of towering ability and depth, he was successfully swimming in the current of exploratory “modernist” European music… until Stalin cracked down. Shostakovich received a harsh reprimand for his socially critical opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District,” at which point he understood that, if he valued his life, he had better start towing the party line. This meant steering clear of “elitest” musical experiments, and writing works which glorified the struggles of the proletariat and the triumphs of Soviet life. There are times when Shostakovich was forced into such severe artistic compromise, such as with some Soviet film scores he was assigned to write, that he was driven to tears. But ultimately, he became a virtuoso at walking the fine line, satisfying the State while encoding his music with his emotional truth. The tension of this challenge worked on Shostakovich like the pressure that creates diamonds. One listen to his 5th Symphony, his 8th String Quartet, or his final work, the cathartic Viola Sonata, and you’ll know you are in the presence of one of the most monstrously powerful voices in music history.

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