The Planets, op. 32, H. 125

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            Gustav Holst is one of England’s most revered composers, creator of musical works in great variety: choral music, songs, band music, orchestral works, ballet, and more.  His musical purview was remarkably diverse, and his compositions are frequently performed and appreciated in Great Britain.  His popularity there bears comparison with his good friend and follow composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams.  In this country the matter is somewhat different.  His reputation rests largely, and solidly, upon his two immortal works for band, Suites No. 1 and No. 2 for Military Band.   It is hard, indeed, to participate in American public school music band programs without having performed one or both of these classics.  They simply stand at the top of the repertoire for band, and almost every American band student knows them well.  On the other hand, however, those who frequent professional orchestra concerts in this country largely know Holst through his most popular orchestral work, The Planets.

            Born of Scandinavian descent in rural England to a musical, middle-class family, Holst received a musical education early, playing the violin and piano, and later taking up the trombone, the mastery of which his father thought would help his asthma.  Holst worked for a while as village organist and choirmaster before attending the Royal College of Music, where he met his life-long friend Vaughan Williams.   He eventually focused on the trombone, and earned a modest living early on as a member of various orchestras.   He soon gave that life up, however, and spent the rest of his life teaching music in private girls’ schools.

             The musical life of Great Britain in those days was strongly influenced by a new appreciation and re-examination of the native musical treasures of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as a fascination with traditional English folk tunes—these influences were significant in the lives of both composers.   Of course, he was well aware of the major compositions of contemporary composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel, and Richard Strauss, and these figured in his artistic development, as well.   Two rather unusual, but important influences in his life and works were Hindu religion and philosophy, and astrology. His abiding interest in Hindu texts began early in the century, leading him to engage in the formal study of Sanskrit--translating the texts for himself--and to compose several of his important works on those texts, including two operas.  His association with astrology began during a trip to Spain in 1912, when a friend of his inspired the interest, and Holst maintained an interest in the subject—reading fortunes along the way--for the rest of his life.

            It is that interest in astrology—not astronomy—that is central to his composition of The Planets.  Holst began the work about 1913, gradually completing it by 1917.  The first performance was given privately in 1918, and word of mouth raised public expectations for the first public performance in 1920.  Originally entitled Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra, the suite suggests to many his familiarity with Schoenberg’s similar use of the phrase.  Others see inspiration derived from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Elgar’s Enigma Variations.   Holst’s pictorialism is less specific than these antecedents, but spectacularly vivid, nonetheless.  Indeed, composed for a large orchestra—remember, large—and perhaps more importantly—varied orchestras were all the rage in the late romantic era, with the orchestras of Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Stravinsky, among others, as models.  In addition to the usual full orchestra, Holst’s score calls for woodwinds in fours--including at times, alto flute, two piccolos, and the (really) rare bass oboe.  The brass section features six horns, four trumpets, and, in addition to the standard bass tuba, a smaller, tenor tuba.  There’s an organ and a celesta, and for the final movement, a wordless women’s chorus—à la Debussy.

            The order and number of the seven movements has generated much discussion with regard to the actual planets and their number and position.  It’s all really irrelevant, for Holst’s work has to do with the astrological signs—of which there are seven--and not with how we define what planets are, or their respective positions with relation to the sun, even what conditions may or may not be on them.  So, the order of movements, beginning with Mars, stems from the astrological succession.

            Holst chose the relatively unusual time signature of five-four time for this ominous evocation of war, beginning with a hypnotic rhythm, repeated over and over, as chords constantly grow and threaten, until they are practically howling.  Following a reiteration of the driving, repeated rhythm in the strings, the rarely used small, or tenor tuba, is featured along the trumpets in punchy fanfares.  This is the original Darth Vader and the Death Star music!  The dreary, desolate landscape of destruction in war is admirably depicted in a bleak, slower middle section before a repeat of the opening hammering material.  This gripping—no glory here!--evocation of war ends with dramatic, blunt hammer strokes, separated by pauses that leaves no doubt of the utter destruction and obliteration of war.

            Venus, bringer of peace, answers a call from the solo horn, and we are ushered into a tranquil world aptly evocative of the Roman goddess of love and beauty, astrologically associated with harmony and balance.   A gentle succession of woodwind passages and lush string sonorities, enhanced by the exotic sound of the celesta create a marvelous respite from Mars.  Holst’s familiarity and obvious respect for the music of Debussy seems clear, here in this floating serenity.  Although, it must be said, the solo cello sounds suspiciously like some passages in compositions of Holst’s best friend, Vaughan Williams.

            Mercury zips by next, in a quicksilver movement befitting the winged messenger of the gods.  In astrology, Mercury also is the symbol of rationality and mentality.  Cascades of scales and twittering rhythms carry thought along like lightening.  The magic celesta part is reminiscent of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier, and our ubiquitous cell phone beeps, as well.

            Another quick movement follows, this time a tribute to Jupiter, the “bringer of jollity.”  Jupiter was considered the ruler of the gods, and the planet, Jupiter, ruler of all the other planets.  Merrymaking and gambling play a part in his personality, as well, and the latter aspect comes into play in the jaunty opening tunes, one zippy and syncopated, and the other a rather thumping waltz.  But in the middle, we are treated to a noble and exalting tune as only the Edwardians can compose—definitely fit for a king (of some kind).  It’s a glorious melody that came to be adapted later by Holst as a church hymn, to the text, “I Vow to My Country,” and is sung and revered in Great Britain.  The raffish tunes return, and the movement ends.

            Saturn, the “Bringer of Old Age” is ushered slowly in by two cold, cold static woodwind chords, endlessly repeated.  After some ominous string comments, the brass intone a stately procession.  In astrology Saturn is the founder of social order and civilizations, charged with duty, responsibility, and discipline.   The brass evidently carry this duty heavily as they plod to a climax, gradually subsiding into a dissolution borne by the strings and oscillating woodwinds that floats timelessly and without emotion into an apparent infinity.

            Four imposing notes slowly and loudly announced by the brass are the motif of “Uranus the Magician.”  They return throughout the movement in a remarkable variety of guises.  But, the movement proper is a stomping, tramping march dedicated to the guardian of genius and discovery, and associated with sudden and unexpected changes.  The march is somewhat redolent of any number of French antecedents—those of Delibes and Dukas, or even Berlioz may come to mind. The bassoon trio sets us off on this little rollicking affair—interrupted from time to time by those four identifying notes.  The orchestra builds the march almost out of control, only to subside. The four-note motto is heard again in soft, pizzicato notes in the harp. The bassoons make a half-hearted attempt to resume the march, but fail.  The brass loudly play the motto again, and finally harp and strings end this enigmatic paean to the clever “Magician.”

            The remarkable fact of the last movement, “Neptune the Mystic” is simply that it was composed almost one hundred years ago.  In it Holst dispenses with so many of the rational and organizing principles of music and wonderfully creates an atmosphere of not only the mystic, but also of the traditional characteristics associated with the planet Neptune:  illusion, confusion, and deception.   Meter (yes, it is the same five-four of the first movement—but can you easily hear it, really?), chord “progressions,” melodies, form, shape—all play minimal to non-existent roles, here at the end.  Rather, the composer uses exotic successions of harmonies and fragments of non-traditional scales to create the floating sound that envelops us.   Imaginative orchestration in the great tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, and Debussy clearly affirms Holst’s mastery.  This is truly “space music” long before the advent of the clichés with which we are all familiar.  As the orchestra gradually fades into nothingness, only the wordless women’s chorus (he had used it in an earlier work) is left, gradually vanishing from our hearing.  It is the only truly human element that stays with us as the composer’s exploration of our humanity writ in the heavens fades.  The conceit is that perhaps--they don’t end.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2024 William E. Runyan