Brett Dean's Komarov's Fall, part of the Berlin Philharmonic's Abu Dhabi programme on Tuesday night, evokes human anguish in a senseless Cold War disaster.
Cosmonaut's fate recalled by Berlin Philharmonic
On April 24, 1967, the Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov crash-landed in a Russian field, dying on impact as his spacecraft disintegrated in a ball of flame. The first human casualty of the space race, Komarov's death was a huge embarrassment to the Soviet establishment, and his lonely final hours have been the subject of speculation for sky watchers ever since. Not only have several books explored Komarov's fatal mission, it was most probably the inspiration for David Bowie's song Space Oddity.
More recently, the Australian composer Brett Dean has written an eerie, poignant piece for orchestra mapping the cosmonaut's descent. Entitled Komarov's Fall, it receives its first Middle East performance at the Berlin Philharmonic's Abu Dhabi concert tonight. The piece is a brilliant example of how contemporary music can both engage the listener emotionally and encourage him or her to re-examine the past. But why does Komarov's fate continue to haunt so many people more than 40 years after his death?
The answer could be that the ill-fated Soyuz 1 mission was about far more than the death of one man. The incident remains a strange reminder of the 20th-century superpowers' intense struggle to outdo each other. Komarov's story is also a classic example of tragic hubris, where the Soviet space programme overreached itself by refusing to acknowledge its own limitations and thus sent a man to his death.
With the US and the Soviet Union each desperate to demonstrate the superiority of its system on every level, the 1960s saw the superpowers flooding their military and scientific researchers with funds. Stand-offs in Cuba and Vietnam had proved inconclusive in tilting the global balance of power to either side, making both adversaries ever keener for a public relations victory in the space race. What some forget is that for a long time - including at the moment of Komarov's death -the Russians had the upper hand. Demonstrating the excellence of their scientific community, they had launched the first satellite, sent Yuri Gagarin into space before any US astronaut, and even catapulted the dogs Laika, Belka and Strelka into orbit, though not all survived.
The Americans, however, were close behind, and by 1967 were already close to landing on the moon. Hampered by unbending adherence to five-year planning, Moscow sensed it was falling behind, and was also desperate for something impressive to mark the 97th anniversary of Lenin's birth.
In this hothouse atmosphere, Soyuz 1's flaws - of which there were many -were overlooked. During a pre-launch inspection, engineers found more than 200 faults with the craft, but Komarov's superiors ignored these to avoid falling behind schedule. Was sending the cosmonaut into space with such an unstable craft a death sentence? Gagarin seemed to think so. The pioneering cosmonaut, by this time an international celebrity, tried to take over Komarov's role in the space flight, well aware that his chiefs would not risk losing a household name by sending him into space in a defective rocket.
Gagarin, however, was refused, and Komarov's flight soon proved to be exactly the disaster he had feared. An essential solar panel failed to open in orbit, leaving Soyuz 1 underpowered and malfunctioning. Realising the mission was in danger, Komarov re-entered the atmosphere before the craft became unmanageable, but he was already too late. The main parachute necessary to slow the descent malfunctioned and Soyuz 1 hurtled to the ground at lightning speed, exploding on impact.
No one could have known it at the time, but Komarov's death in fact proved to be the end of Soviet supremacy in space. Less than a year later Gagarin was also dead, in a moment of cruel irony. Banned from space flight after the Komarov debacle by superiors fearful of losing another Soviet hero, he crashed on a routine flight while retraining as a fighter pilot in 1968.
Arguably more compelling than this story of official bungling are the fragmentary accounts of Komarov's final hours, partly gleaned from radio transmissions intercepted in the West. When ground control lost hope of saving the cosmonaut, they apparently brought his wife Valentina in for a final radio goodbye. And while the recordings of Komarov's last words are garbled, sky watchers have long claimed he went down cursing both Soyuz 1's bungling manufacturers and his negligent bosses. It's surely this haunting image that sticks most in the mind, of a man piloting one of the most sophisticated machines of his time, but still dying unaided, desperate and alone.
At a time when the onward march into space seemed apparently unstoppable, Komarov's death was a reminder of human vulnerability during a period of bullish technical confidence.
It is this sense of vulnerability and isolation that comes across most strongly in Komarov's Fall. The composer was a viola player with the Berlin Philharmonic for 15 years before he left to concentrate on composing, and it was Dean's former orchestra itself that commissioned his score and is now bringing it to Abu Dhabi.
It remains a brilliant example of how music can bring an event in the past to life in a way that eludes mere reportage. Intensely atmospheric, it starts by evoking the utter stillness of space, with the faintest high squeak of a violin set against a backdrop of silence. Opening up into an uncanny but compelling soundscape of eerie strings, birdsong-like woodwind, martial brass and scuttling percussion, Komarov's Fall also possesses an unusually vivid sense of narrative. Listen carefully and you can pick out a clear thread. There is a lyrical passage where Komarov is in contact with his wife, then a tension-building step-up in volume and tempo as danger becomes more pressing. Finally comes a dramatic but not overstated suggestion of the craft's fall to earth underscored with shimmering cymbals.
Dean's choice of subject matter and non-traditional music style might strike novices as highly unusual, but his approach is not out of place in contemporary music. The piece's exploration of a pressure point of 20th-century history involving both science and politics shows a certain kinship with other major composers working today. The excellent American minimalist Steve Reich's opera Three Tales, for example, looks at both the crash of the German zeppelin Hindenburg and the atom bomb tests at Bikini atoll.
Perhaps best known of all, however, is John Adams's gripping opera Dr Atomic, which follows the first bomb tests in the Nevada desert prior to the US attack on Hiroshima. Both of these pieces share with Dean's the belief that music can make events real to listeners by fostering an intuitive emotional understanding.
Likewise, they step back from the atonality of purist modernism to produce beautiful music that neither fits exactly within a traditional western harmonic structure nor rejects it completely.
This powerful music's beautiful textures and strong sense of social engagement are far from the public image of contemporary orchestral music as arcane and unengaging. The Berlin Philharmonic's performance of Dean's piece (along with other, better known parts of the repertoire) will hopefully be a reminder both of a painful sideshow from Cold War history and of music's power to help us examine the past in a new light.