Listening Material and information for the Koninklijke Harmoniekapel Delf

Koninklijke Harmoniekapel Delf and conductor Erik Janssen


Gagarin – I. Road to the Stars (RNCM Wind Orchestra Conductor: James Gourlay)

Gagarin – II. Orbit (RNCM Wind Orchestra Conductor: James Gourlay)

Gagarin – III. Homecoming (RNCM Wind Orchestra Conductor: James Gourlay)


`GAGARIN’ was written for Dr Matthew George and the University of St. Thomas Symphonic Wind Ensemble in Minnesota, USA

I. Road to the Stars

II. Orbit

III. Homecoming

Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin was the Soviet farmboy who became the first man in space. He was born on 9 March 1934, and this work celebrates his 70th anniversary. It was not until 1961 that the wider world heard of his name. His short life spanned the 20th century’s most traumatic times from the turmoil of the Second World War in Russia, through to the cold war at the height of which Gagarin served as an officer in the Soviet Airforce. It was against the backdrop of the cold war that the two main post war superpowers competed to launch the first man into space.

Twenty of the Soviet Union’s exceptional test pilots were selected from a list of over 2000 and put through arduous training.  Only one was to be chosen to be the first cosmonaut in space. Gagarin was the man the authorities selected for this historical flight, the decision being taken only a few weeks before the actual launch. His rocket, now world famous, was `Vostok 1’.

The launch took place in a specially made launch station in the south of the republic of Kazakhstan at Baikonur. There were many disasters and deaths that paved the way to this event.  Only weeks before the launch, 190 men died when a rocket exploded at the Baikonur site. It was doubtful whether Gagarin knew about this as the whole project was shrouded in secrecy.

By today’s standards the whole launch process was primitive, but on 1st April 1961 Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth for 108 minutes before returning to Earth and landing near the village of Smelkovka in the Saratov region. His return to Earth was reported to be witnessed by one or two local country people. As knowledge of the mission was confined to a privileged few, for them it must have been an unnerving sight.

Gagarin’s experience obviously had a profound effect on him: after his orbit he said `Circling the earth in the orbital spaceship I marvelled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty – not destroy it!’

 In Gagarin’s own official account of events `Road to the Stars’ he describes that at the moment of launch he heard an ever-growing din and felt the rocket tremble all over before it slowly lifted off. He also spoke of a huge range of musical tones, pitches and timbres that no composer or set of musical instruments or voices could ever duplicate.

Gagarin became a national hero after his courageous mission, but although he gained world-wide recognition, he was never allowed to fly in space again. He died tragically on 28th March 1968 whilst flying his MiG-15UTI jet.

In `Gagarin’ I have tried to capture the spirit of the times. ‘Road to the Stars’ concentrates on the excitement of those involved, the strength of Gagarin’s character and the launch itself. ‘Orbit’ looks at the exhilaration that Gagarin might have experienced and the impression that seeing Earth from space would have had on him. ‘Homecoming’ is a celebration in the form of a Russian folk dance. At various moments in the work I use fragments of the Soviet national anthem `Sing to the Motherland, home of the free’ (now revised and adopted as the Russian national anthem).


Short Documentary Film about Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin’s first space flight in `Vostok 1’


Questions to the Composer

1) Why and how did you decide to write a concert about GAGARIN?

I was commissioned by conductor Prof. Matthew George and the University of St Thomas in Minnesota, USA, to write a piece for his Symphonic Wind Orchestra. It was my idea to base the work around the achievements of Yuri Gagarin. We hear so much these days about the Apollo moon landing but not so much about the original pioneers of the space flight programme. I had also just read Yuri Gagarin’s autobiography `Road to the Stars’ and thought this a worthy project for a new work: accordingly the first movement of `Gagarin’ is called `Road to the Stars’. The second movement is called `Orbit’, depicting the cosmonaut’s 108-minute orbit, and finally `Homecoming’ which is a triumphant celebration of his return to Earth. I am very proud that the University of St Thomas recorded my piece, which can be heard on ITunes.

2) What is your personal attitude to Gagarin?

It goes without saying that the first manned space flight was a great human achievement paid for by much loss of life leading up to its success. Yuri Gagarin was one of many brave cosmonauts and astronauts that inspired and influenced generations.

3) Have you ever been to Russia? If you have, when, where and what were your impressions?

Though I have travelled extensively, I have unfortunately never been to Russia. `Gagarin’ was performed by the Volga Professional Wind Orchestra in Saratov on 12 April 2008. The concert was sponsored by the Russian Federal Space Agency in celebration of Gagarin’s 1961 orbit and held as part of the cosmonaut’s anniversary celebrations at the site of the Space Museum, which bears his name. This is a location, which I would love to visit at some time in the future especially if there were another performance there.