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The Story of Holst's The Planets

Holst and The Planets
Holst and The Planets

Holst’s seven movement suite ‘The Planets’ had a difficult genesis, completed in the midst of a global conflict by a composer who barely had enough time to compose. And the finished result was not initially universally well received, with some conductors considering it too 'difficult' for audiences. Nowadays, however, it is one of the most familiar and beloved works in the orchestral canon, a source of inspiration for other composers and a very popular choice amongst our members here on 8notes. Here is its fascinating story.

Astrological inspiration

Holst had a lively mind and was always on the lookout for inspiration for his work, whether that be other composers’ music; poetry; folk music or even Sanskrit texts. In the 1910s Clifford Bax (the brother of composer Arnold Bax) introduced Holst to astrology, the composer eventually becoming a skilled practitioner, although his skepticism of it is suggested by him calling it a ‘pet vice.’

His love of astrology quickly suggested to him a series of pieces based upon the planets of the solar system.

It took a long time to write

Holst was a busy man, working full time as a teacher at St. Paul’s School for girls and at Morley college (an adult education centre in London). He didn’t therefore have a lot of time to devote to composition, needing the help of colleagues to prepare a fair copy of the full score. As a result, the whole piece took three years, from 1914–17, to complete.

Why there is no Earth or Pluto

Earth is not included since in astrology the planets act upon the earth, which is not considered an active body. Pluto, whose status as a planet is anyway debated, had not yet been discovered (the composer Colin Matthews took it upon himself to write a Pluto movement in 2000)

The complete suite

The description of each movement is also related, though not always exactly, to the Roman God of the same name, the ancients being the first practitioners of astrology.

An early version of the work places ‘Mercury’ as the first movement, which may suggest that the composer was considering following the order of the planets from the sun outwards. He instead opted for a sequence of movements that makes the best dramatic and musical sense.

1. Mars, the Bringer of War

A dramatic opening movement with an incessant ostinato rhythm in 5/4 time. It works into a frightening frenzy before ending in a despairing series of hammer blows. Many have suggested that it is a portrayal of the horrors of World War 1, but the movement was actually completed before the war began.

2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace

This peaceful adagio, with its pulsating chords and romantic melodies for solo horn, violin and oboe, provides the perfect riposte to the martial opening.

3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger

A fleeting scherzo in 6/8 time that works into an expansive melody for the whole orchestra before melting mercurially away.

4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

A appropriately lively and exuberant movement. Those born under the sign of Jupiter are said to have stately and noble characteristics, portrayed by Holst in the famous central section, the melody of which was later used for the patriotic hymn I Vow to Thee My Country.

5. Saturn the Bringer of Old Age

Portentous tolling opening chords lead to a long procession that builds to a loud climax. The tolling chords reappear as if sounding judgement day. The movement fades away, seemingly in visions of paradise.

6. Uranus, the Magician

A brassy opening leads to magical dance that is reminiscent of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The whole builds into brassy frenzy ending in a long coda recapitulating the main material.

7. Neptune, the Mystic

A mysterious and quiet final movement filled with brilliant dissonant harmony and touches of orchestration, the most compelling of which is the addition of a female offstage chorus in the last third. The movement ends with their repeating chords, the score directing that the door between the singers and auditorium be closed to complete their fading away.

The work was considered to difficult to be performed complete...

The work requires a very large orchestra, which Holst did not so much employ because he needed volume (i.e. loudness), but because he needed a very wide colour palette to realise the music he had imagined. A sense of colour is also created by Holst’s imaginative harmony, which includes the use of bintoality (two keys at the same time) or otherwise high levels of dissonance. In consequence the music was considered so difficult that Adrian Boult, who had conducted the premiere, later often did not perform it complete saying that, ”half an hour of it was as much as they [the public] could take in.”

...but is now considered a classic

Despite the rocky start, the work quickly grew in popularity. It is now one of the best loved in the orchestral canon, having been recorded nearly 100 times. It has also been an endless source of inspiration to other composers, the pictorial elements in it being particularly inspiring for those working on TV and film music (see our article on the music of Star Wars, for example).

It has also been used countless times in culture more widely. The central section of Jupiter, as well as being used for the hymn ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ has also been adapted as the song ‘The World in Union’ for the Rugby World Cup:

And other parts have been many times in films and on television, including in ‘The Grand Tour’ (Mars), ‘Sherlock’ and ‘The Simpsons‘ (Jupiter), ‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ (Venus) , David Copperfield: 15 Years of Magic (Mars and Saturn) and the 2011 movie ‘Keyhole’ (Neptune).

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