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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Planets

The English composer Gustav Holst was born in 1874. He was a prolific composer, a visionary, inspired by influences as diverse as English folk song, astrology and Hindu religion. He was also an excellent teacher. Yet it is true that in the minds of the musical public, his reputation is dominated by a single work, a work whose fame Holst himself later came to regret. That work, The Planets, composed between 1914 and 1916, is the subject of today’s post.

Gustav Holst (1921)

The Planets is scored for a huge orchestra, which Holst used in a way which was unprecedented in English music. It’s also one of the most influential works in music history; it’s hard for us to imagine the impact it had on its first audiences because nowadays so many of its innovations have been taken on by composers in film, television, theatre and the concert hall.

The seven movements of the suite describe each of the seven planets of the solar system (Earth is omitted) as known in Holst’s time. When Pluto was discovered in 1930 Holst resisted all attempts to have him add an extra movement. This was done much later - in 2000 - by English composer Colin Matthews; his piece Pluto, the Renewer is sometimes played at the end of complete performances of The Planets. The decision by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 to “demote” Pluto from being a true planet means that once again, Holst’s suite is complete in itself, with no need for well-meaning attempts by others to “complete” it. (In 2008 the IAU coined the term “plutoid” to refer to Pluto and other objects that have an orbital semi-major axis greater than that of Neptune and enough mass to be of near-spherical shape.)

For more on the Pluto issue, you can read the IAU declarations here.

A more general article on Pluto and its history is here.

Pluto, the Renewer by Colin Matthews can be heard here.

For the musical examples in this post I’ll link to a recording of the complete work which has been posted on YouTube. It’s played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.

The first movement of the suite is Mars, the Bringer of War. Holst called the whole of The Planets “a series of mood pictures” and these moods have their origins in astrology more so than Classical mythology (although the two of course often overlap). Mars is perhaps the most famous movement of the seven; its savage warlike imagery has been plundered by countless composers ever since. The pounding 5/4 pulse and relentless rhythm make this truly one of the most gripping and horrifying pieces in western music. The middle section, in 5/2 time, is pure malevolence as wave after wave of sound build to the explosive return of the 5/4 rhythm.

Listen to Mars here.

The contrast with the next movement - Venus, the Bringer of Peace - is extreme. For all the music’s tranquillity, Venus is a piece orchestras find extremely challenging. The principal horn has very little time to recover from Mars before the treacherous opening notes of Venus, and the wind chords are notoriously difficult to play in tune. Holst also asks the violins to play very high in awkward keys such as F sharp major. Holst’s music contains an element of sensuality but its peace is bitter-sweet after the horrors of war: welcome but tinged with sadness at what has gone before.

Listen to Venus here.

From the quiet repose of Venus comes the nervous intensity of Mercury, the Winged Messenger. This is music which represents that which is impossible to grasp, fleeting wisps of sound dart before us, as insubstantial as mist. Solid this music may not be, but again, it is extraordinarily difficult to play. The rhythms at high speed are very hard to play accurately. The harmonic foundation for the music is also notoriously difficult to pin down; the players have no sense of a home key, and the key is constantly shifting. Everything about this winged messenger is on the move.

Listen to Mercury here.

After Mars, perhaps the most widely-copied and adapted movement in The Planets is the next, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. In Mercury all was light, airy and incorporeal. Here, things could not be more solid. The dynamic power and energy of the opening and closing sections of the movement have made it ready fodder for use as a television theme, and much else besides.

Shortly after Jupiter was composed, the big, noble tune in the middle section of the movement was adapted (with Holst’s approval) to fit Cecil Spring-Rice’s patriotic poem which begins, “I vow to thee, my country”. For those who know the hymn it’s probably impossible now to forget it when hearing the tune in its original context. It is important to remember, though, that this melody originally had no patriotic intention. Rather, it’s designed to suggest a different aspect of jollity to that invoked in the wild sounds preceding it.

Listen to Jupiter here.

Each of the seven movements of The Planets can stand alone but Holst himself disliked incomplete performances of the piece; he particularly disliked the practice of playing only the first four movements and ending with Jupiter - a sequence which corresponds to the four movements of a symphony - in order to have a “happy ending”.

Life goes on, and in The Planets this is made abundantly clear in the next movement, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age. Two alternating chords and an awkward, almost inconvenient melody starting in the double basses, are the raw materials Holst uses to show old age as being unavoidable. Eventually the trombones quietly announce a march - almost a march to the grave - underscored by relentless pizzicato notes in the cellos and basses.

This march grows over a long time span until the advent of old age is heard to inspire panic, until eventually panic turns to calm resignation, a mature acceptance of what must be.

Listen to Saturn here.

The tranquillity of accepting inevitable decline is shattered by the second last movement, Uranus, the Magician. This is the most violent music we’ve heard since Mars and the magician in question seems to cast his spell most malevolently.

Uranus is based on two musical ideas. The first is an angular sequence of four notes heard at the beginning. A loping, almost hobbling sort of passage leads eventually to the second major idea, a bleak sounding circus march about two and half minutes in. This in turn leads to a gigantic climax which is swept away by, among other things, a glissando on full organ. This moment was described by Imogen Holst, the composer’s daughter, as being “when all the noise was blotted out, leaving a quietness that seemed as remote as the planet in the sky”.

Listen to Uranus here.

And in the quietness of the distant reaches of the solar system, the magician being behind us, we reach what is possibly Holst’s most original creation, Neptune, the Mystic. The aim here is to create a world devoid of humanity, so cold and so distant. Like Mars, this music is in quintuple meter, but our ears are drawn more to the orchestral colours, sounds which again have been regularly imitated by others ever since.

Ironically, to create this inhuman environment, Holst uses human voices. Offstage there are female voices in six parts whose wordless sound fades away into the distance at the end.

Listen to Neptune here.

The effect of that audaciously original ending on audiences in the world before television and sound cinema was totally new and overwhelming. Imogen Holst, speaking after the first performance, said the ending was “unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women’s voices growing fainter and fainter...until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence.”

The Planets was given a seriously under-rehearsed private premiere with a small invited audience in London in September 1918. Adrian Boult conducted the performance, which had been arranged as a gift to the composer by Henry Balfour Gardiner. Sources vary about the time and place of the first public performance of the complete suite, but this seems to have been given in Birmingham in October 1920, with the first complete public performance in London taking place the following month.

Sir Adrian Boult

What is amazing though, is that more than a century later The Planets can, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Strauss’ Salome, still sound so new.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2008.

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