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Spheres in Orbit (1960)


March 9, 2017

Alexander Brott is one of the most important anglophone composers to have made his career in Québec. A Montréal native, he first studied violin and composition at the McGill Conservatorium (later Conservatory) before moving on to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, in 1934, to continue his training. While there he worked on the violin under Sascha Jacobsen, on composition with Bernard Wagenaar and on orchestra conducting with Albert Stoessel, three disciplines in which he would make a name for himself throughout his career.

First a violinist with the Montreal Orchestra starting in 1930, he joined the faculty of McGill University in 1939 as professor of violin and composition. In the course of his first year on the job he founded the McGill String Quartet, which in time became the McGill Chamber Orchestra – still active today under the direction of his son Denis. In 1945 Alexander Brott was appointed concertmaster with the Orchestre des concerts symphoniques de Montréal(the future OSM), a position he kept until 1958 while also serving as assistant conductor of the orchestra. Over the years the composer was honored on many occasions: three honorary doctorates, along with the titles of Member of the Order of Canada, Night of the National Order of Québec and Knight of Malta of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. In 1962 he became the first Canadian composer to be invited to conduct his own music, along with various works of his compatriots’, in a USSR in mid–Cold War.

Spheres in Orbit is one work in the vast catalogue of compositions by Alexander Brott, which consists of over 100 titles written for voice and for various instrumental ensembles. Renowned conductors like Otto Klemperer, Leopold Stokowski and Charles Dutoit have interpreted his music in concert.

About the work Spheres in Orbit

Commissioned by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in 1960, this fresco for orchestra – of “descriptive realism,” in the words of the composer – seeks to represent the age of space flight. The audiences is invited to take part in the new space odyssey, just getting started at the time the work was composed. The spheres evoked in the title are a direct reference to the first Russian satellite, Sputnik.

Approaching extremes, drawing together the resources made available to the composer, Spheres in Orbit is in a way a symphonic poem with a rich power of evocation, featuring at the same time the grand-scale, the martial and the infinite solitude of celestial objects. Throughout the piece, passages reveal themselves to be both contrasting and complementary: its vast ternary form is effectively based on the opposition of forte (orchestral tutti) and piano dynamics (especially soli or passages in small instrumental groups), elaborated over successive accumulations of layers of sound. The great masses at the start and the finish deploy all the grandeur of a rhythmic, percussive orchestra, one often dominated by the power and brilliance of the brass. The central passage, calmer, has the instruments engaging in more of a dialogue with one another.

Alexander Brott’s program note for the premiere of Spheres in Orbit:

Spheres in Orbit is dedicated to my friends of long standing in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. To speak of structure, technique or device strikes me as superfluous, and to submit extravagant program notes is to encourage conviction without trial. Music only comes to life with the active participation of an aware audience. I therefore invite you to join me in this flight of fancy called Spheres in Orbit.

The Space Ship is ready.

The Count-Down begins.

The awe of revelation invades us.

This is the supreme moment.”

– Alexander Brott, “My Most Successful Work,” The Canadian Composer, No. 24, December 1967, p. 21.


Hear the version of the work by the Greater Symphony Orchestra of Soviet Radio and Television under the direction of the composer, recorded in 1961 on the Baroque Records label and reissued in 2009 by Orion.

[Citation : ]
“In October of 1962 I was asked to perform this work with various Russian orchestras as guest conductor on a tour of the Soviet Union as part of the Cultural Exchange Program. Although serial works are generally not appreciated in the U.S.S.R., Spheres in Orbit was an overwhelming success and provoked enthusiastic applause and bravos. That may be partly due to the Russian translation of the title: Sputnik na Orbitje! It was performed in Moscow, Leningrad, Teblisi and Yerevan. Before leaving Russia, I was asked to conduct a recording with the Soviet Bolshoi Radio and Television Orchestra.”

– Alexander Brott, “My Most Successful Work,” The Canadian Composer, No. 24, December 1967, p. 21.

Not much of Alexander Brott’s music has been recorded over the past 20 years. The Analekta label did however produce a disc in 2012 taken from a taping that dates from the early 1990s.

Works by Alexander Brott, Analekta, 2012. (ANC 9801)

Fans of vinyl might consider the seven records contained in the Anthology of Canadian Music.

Anthology of Canadian Music: Alexander Brott, Radio-Canada International, 1985. (ACM 20)


– Brott, Alexander, and King, Betty Nygaard. My Lives in Music. Oakville, Ont.: Mosaic Press, 2005.


“I had the honour of being the first Canadian composer to conduct his own work in the USSR. Lotte and I were conscious of our responsibility as Canadian cultural ambassadors, hoping to connect through the universal language of music and perhaps paving the way for political dialogue. With the Canadian Department of External Affairs and Soviet Ministry of Culture I carefully selected the program featuring my most recent composition, a twelve-tone work which I called Spheres in Orbit. The piece conveys the seeming weightlessness of the Sputnik satellite, which we had seen in the sky over our cottage in 1958.”

– Alexander Brott and Betty Nygaard King, My Lives in Music (Oakville, Ont.: Mosaic Press, 2005), p. 118.