The Planets

Gustav Holst

In 1913, Gustav Holst visited Majorca. While there he became acquainted with astrology, which became a lifelong interest. He wrote to a friend:

“As a rule, I only study things which suggest music to me….recently I became acquainted with astrology and the character of each planet suggested logs to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.”  Imogen Holst, the composer’s daughter, recalled that Alan Leo’s What is a Horoscope was one of her father’s favorite books. In the book, Leo described the planets, giving each a small description, and expanding upon the astrological significance of each. The Planets, Holst’s most popular work, reflect his characterization of the planets, with the exception of The earth and Pluto (which had not yet been discovered.)

Central to astrological thought is the power of divination, forecasting, and fateful determination via the character and placement of the planets, following the maxim “as above, so below.”  Today many call it a pseudoscience because of its non-empirical basis, putting far more reliance on the science of astronomy, which developed from astrological inquiries. Stephen Hawking, a British theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, stated that “Most scientist don’t believe in astrology because it is not consistent with our theories that have been tested by experiment.” However, the allure of astrology has continued despite such debunking, and it continues to draw us into its system and mystery. Holst was very taken by astrology, and in private parties liked to give “astrological readings” and casting horoscopes for his friends. He stands in a long continuum of philosophers, musicians, scientists, and artists who have pondered the mysteries of the cosmos and man’s relationship to it.

Holst characterizes The Planets as follows:

The first planet, Mars, the Bringer of War, was completed in August 1914. The entire Suite was completed in 1917.  Its aggressive, wild nature marches in with an insistent (ostinato) 5/4 rhythm proclaimed by the strings playing col legno battato, with the wood of the bow on a single tone. The Planets is known to have a low atmospheric pressure, which creates turbulent, vast windstorms. Horns and brass fanfares add to the military aspects of the planet’s characterization, and the movement is filled with gigantic climaxes as the scene violently depicts battles, rage, and produces a triumphal march.  D flat and C tonalities are sometimes combined to give an edgy polytonality. One of the highlights is the solo accorded to the euphonium. The movement closes with heavy brass and percussion.

Conductor Sir Adrian Boult remembered; “I well remember (Holst) saying the he wanted the stupidity of war to stand out…I say definitely that rushing Mars is not putting its stupidity first.” (Interview with Trevor Harvey in 1974)

Venus, the Bringer of Peace, arrives via a solo horn with a small theme answered by soft flutes. A second theme is sung by solo violin. Everything is at peace, colored “by delicate orchestral pastels”, oscillating chords from flutes and harps, and the sweet sound of the tinkling celesta.

Mercury, the winged messenger, was the last planet to be composed. The planet via solo violin scurries about amid fast orchestral figurations and light, darting gestures from muted violins. Holst considered this movement to reflect the “process of human thought.”

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, arrives with blaring horns. The music continually rejoices and dances, possibly influenced by Holst’s interest in English folk dances. In the central section, the strings sing a stately tune (sometimes extracted for a patriotic hymn titled “I vow to thee my country, an event which displeased the composer) before closing in a flashing coda. The abundance of happiness and good will is palpable throughout.

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, was Holst’s favorite movement. The music begins with a restless portrayal of the beginning of human life (26 measures of sharp syncopated chords,) continuing into a march-like section for middle age, and finally arriving at a dirge-like melody depicting the ravages of old age. Subsequently, however, the music assumes a resigned serenity, a peaceful maturity, which is one of the experiences of old age as well. Holst commented, “Saturn not only brings physical decay but also a vision of fulfillment.”

The magician Uranus arrives with a four note spell, a musical representation of Holst’s name, declaimed  by the brass. The music opens with spooky chords, colored by unstable major/minor tonalities. Holst churns the orchestra through high drama and turbulence, including a manic dance. The close is quiet and sinister.

Neptune, the Mystic, offers a chilling conclusion. This is the only title that Holst took from Leo’s book in which the planet is described a “subtle and mysterious”, occupying at that time the far edges of the solar system. Holst marks it to be played ‘sempre pp throughout’, calling for the sound to be softly evoked by cymbals played with felt sticks and the timpani with wooden one. Basically, there is no real melody or reliable rhythm to hang on to. Rippling harp figuration and high-pitched violins create an atmosphere of enormous distance to the planet.  At midpoint, a female chorus sings a wordless song, from offstage, “beckoning as it recedes into the infinite unknown.” (Paul Serotsky) Holst indicated that the door to the chorus be silently closed at the ending.

Holst was amazed and even dismayed by the worldwide success of The Planets, and a one point commented, “Every artist ought to pray that he may not be a success.”

An Addendum:

Pluto was discovered in 1930, four years before Holst’s death, but he never wrote a part for it. The British composer Colin Matthews later composed Pluto, the Renewer to “round out the set”, connecting his contribution to the final bars of Neptune, changing a few bars of Neptune for the connection. Mr. Matthews explained: “When Kent Nagano asked me to add Pluto to The Planets I had mixed feelings. To begin with, The Planets is a very satisfying whole, and one, which makes perfect musical sense. Neptune ends the work in a way wholly appropriate for Holst — an enigmatic composer, always likely to avoid the grand gesture if he could do something unpredictable instead. How could I begin again, after the music has completely faded away as if into outer space? And, even though Pluto was discovered four years before Holst’s death in 1934, I am certain that he never once thought to write an additional movement (he was in any case decidedly ambivalent about the work’s huge popularity). In addition, the matter of Pluto’s status as a planet has for some time been in doubt — it may well be reclassified (together with its tiny satellite Charon) as no more than an asteroid, thrown way out of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, or ‘captured’ by the sun’s gravitational field.…The only possible way to carry on from where Neptune leaves off is not to make a break at all, and so Pluto begins before Neptune has quite faded, necessitating a slight change to the ending. The movement soon took on an identity of its own, following a path, which I seemed to be simply allowing to proceed as it would: in the process I came perhaps closer to Holst than I had expected, although at no point did I think to write pastiche. At the end the music disappears, almost as if Neptune had been quietly continuing in the background. Pluto is dedicated to the memory of Holst’s daughter Imogen, with whom I worked for many years until her death in 1984, and who I suspect would have been both amused and dismayed by this venture.”

“Mr. Matthews’ Pluto takes as its starting point solar winds, and the music is full of swift, swirling passages. It ends quietly.” Pluto has since been de-classified as a  “full status” planet in 2006, receiving the new status of “dwarf planet” and given the number 134340.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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