Planets Planets

2017 Blossom Music Festival
August 26 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.


The Planets, Opus 32
Orchestral Suite in Seven Movements

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
composed 1914-16

At a Glance
Holst composed The Planets between 1914 and 1916. The first performances were private and incomplete; the official premiere took place on November 15, 1920, with Albert Coates conducting. (The success of the work was so great that two American orchestras, the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, vied for the privilege of giving the United States premiere. The situation was resolved by arranging for both to play the work on the same day.)

The Planets runs about 50 minutes in performance. Holst scored it for 4 flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolos, fourth also doubling bass flute), 3 oboes (third doubling bass oboe), English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tenor tuba, bass tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, 2 harps, organ, and strings, plus (in the last movement) an offstage chorus of women’s voices.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed The Planets in December 1971.

About the Music
At some point someone had to come along and write a piece of music about the planets. Relationships between musical composition and astrology have existed for many generations — at least since the writings of the 15th-century Italian neo-Platonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, who devised music appropriate for each of the planets to attract their salutary influences. Ficino himself performed such music, singing to his own accompaniment on the lira da braccio (a bowed string instrument). Unfortunately, the music hasn’t survived.

The belief that the proportions (and other features) of the celestial bodies correspond meaningfully and audibly to musical proportions is older still, for this is what medieval music theorists called “musica mundana” or “the music of the spheres.” Curiously, little of this ever materialized into actual musical compositions directly inspired from the heavens and stars.

Eventually, someone was going to come along and make the connection explicit by writing a great piece of music about the planets. Yet, at first sight, Gustav Holst, a music teacher at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith near London, would have seemed a somewhat unlikely candidate for the honor. At forty, Holst — “a reticent schoolteacher,” in the words of his biographer Michael Short — had a large number of works in his catalog, but he had yet to achieve a breakthrough success.

Aside from his lifelong friendship with fellow composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom he had met at school, Holst was a rather withdrawn man; he also suffered from poor health for most of his life. His hands suffered from neuritis, forcing him to give up piano playing while still a young man; for a few years, he was able to make his living playing the trombone. Because of his hands, he dictated some of his music to two dedicated colleagues, Nora Day and Vally Lasker. He spent a great deal of time directing student performing groups and composing music for them. More serious work had to wait for the weekends and summer vacation.

Holst had a longstanding interest in astrology. It is possible that he had received the first inspiration from his studies of Sanskrit language and literature — studies that resulted in several musical works, most notably the chamber opera Savitri. The writer Clifford Bax reported that Holst was “a skilled reader of horoscopes.” Holst himself wrote in 1913, “As a rule I only study things which suggest music to me. Recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.”

The characters of the planets, and their influences on us, are well circumscribed in astrological traditions. Each planet bears a distinct similarity to the Greco-Roman god whose name it shares, although Holst insisted that his music was inspired by the planets, not the deities.

The completed suite of music runs the whole gamut of characters, from warlike to lyrical, whimsical to mysterious. The seven movements cover all the planets in our solar system, except the Earth. (Pluto, which was not discovered until 1930, obviously wasn’t included either. That may be just as well, since Pluto was “demoted” from planet to a mere dwarf planet in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union. Therefore, the choice of British composer Colin Matthews, who in 2000 composed a Pluto movement to go with Holst’s The Planets, may have been somewhat premature, although the world gained a beautiful new orchestral work in the process. Recordings of the Holst-Matthews combination are available and worth hearing.)

The sequence of Holst’s movements does not follow the order of increasing distance from the sun; instead, Holst started with Mars, moved closer to the sun, and then, jumping ahead to Jupiter, farther and farther away from it. This sequence is actually the same as the order in which the music was written, except for Mercury, which was the last movement to be completed. The order of the movements suggests a progression from the more clear-cut emotions in “Mars” and “Venus” to the more ambiguous and mysterious ones of “Saturn,” “Uranus,” and “Neptune.”

In The Planets, Holst preserved his independence from the musical revolutionaries of his time, without sounding conservative. As his daughter Imogen Holst, a noted composer, conductor, and writer, stated in the book she wrote about her father: “For the first time in his life, Holst had said what he wanted to say in a way in which only he could have said it.”

The Music

Mars, the Bringer of War (Allegro). The opening movement is a march in the asymmetrical meter of 5/4.   As conductor Sir Adrian Boult later recalled, Holst had insisted that, of all the characteristics of war, in this music he most wanted to capture its “stupidity.” (The movement was completed shortly before the outbreak of World War I, in the midst of much public debate regarding the value of that impending crisis.) The strings, harps, and the timpani start with a brutal ostinato rhythm in 5/4, against which the winds play their menacing themes.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace (Adagio). This is a lyrical movement with many prominent instrumental solos (horn, violin, oboe, celesta). In trying to describe the music, it is challenging to find more evocative words for this movement than what Imogen Holst wrote: “The calm notes of the solo horn rise through empty space, and the cool flutes sail down to meet them, blending with the glitter of the oboes and bringing the solace of contrary motion after so much parallel surging up and down. As they draw inwards the listener sighs with relief to hear them come to rest for a while in the safe anchorage of their minor triad. When the air stirs it is with the movement of quietly undulating crotchets [quarter notes] that change to and fro over repeated chords on flutes and horns and harps, while a low sustained pedal note stretches out to hold their vibrations.”

Mercury, the Winged Messenger (Vivace). This is the quick “scherzo” movement of the suite. The constantly changing orchestral colors, the brief motifs, and the many unexpected melodic and harmonic turns make this music a perfect illustration of the ever-changing “mercurial” character.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity (Allegro giocoso). According to Boult, here Holst saw “one of those jolly fat people who enjoy life.” This would appear to contradict Holst’s statement that the movements represent planets, not gods (much less people); however, Jupiter is definitely a bright and benevolent planet according to the astrological tradition, and what Boult said about one of the themes is true of the movement as a whole: “It reflects the good humour of Jupiter, no more, no less.”

“Jupiter” is replete with memorable melodies; many of them are given to the brass instruments, in keeping with the majestic character of Jupiter (the largest of the planets, or the most powerful of the gods). In the middle of the movement, we suddenly hear a solemn hymn tune played by the strings (later published, with Holst’s acquiescence if not his wholehearted approval, as a song for chorus in unison with the words “I Vow to Thee, My Country”). Then the “jollier” Jupiter music returns.

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age (Adagio). This is the darkest movement of the cycle — and Holst’s own favorite. The planet Saturn was thought to be a negative influence. It was frequently associated with demons, and with the sadness and decline of old age. Like “Venus” after “Mars,” “Saturn” after “Jupiter” forms a complete contrast in mood. The immutable parallel chords at the beginning of the movement, played by flutes, bass flute, and harps, seem to express the inevitability of aging; the melody that gradually unfolds in the trombones is nothing if not gloomy and foreboding in character. The melody rises to a full fortissimo [“very loud”] with bells tolling, and then fades away as two solo double basses play it to the accompaniment of muted violins and the harmonics of the harps. The theme last appears in a pentatonic variation (a form playable by using just a piano’s black keys), bathed in the lush sonorities of the harps, flutes, horns and a distant echo of the bells heard earlier. One hears in the score the proximity in style to Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé (1912).

Uranus, the Magician (Allegro) brings another drastic mood change. It is another scherzo movement, but unlike the volatile “Mercury,” “Uranus” evokes an evolution from the grotesque to the supernatural. The trumpets and trombones intone a stentorian four-note motif (based on a segment of the whole-tone scale); this is developed by the bassoons into a lively movement whose rhythm and instrumentation recall Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897). Adrian Boult asserted, however, that Holst “had never heard Dukas’s work, or even seen the score, when he wrote ‘Uranus’.” The music reaches a tremendous climax followed by sudden silence, and then, in Boult’s words: “Harps suggest the four-note figure, another scream from everybody follows, and this chord, reduced to nothing, changes colour several times as a magician might, and the four notes ppp [“triple piano” or “very very softly”] bring us back to silence after six minutes of magical fun.”

Neptune, the Mystic (Andante). As Boult explained, “every instrument is directed to play very softly throughout, and the tone is to be ‘dead,’ except for one moment near the end, when the clarinet plays a succession of notes which might almost be called a tune in this otherwise tuneless, expressionless, shapeless succession of cloudy harmonies, suggesting as it does an infinite vision of timeless eternity. We spoke of the end but this is inaccurate, for if it is possible for a piece of music never to finish, this is what happens here. A slow, irregular swing between two distant chords fills nearly every bar of the 3+2 metre, and imperceptibly we become conscious that female voices have joined the orchestra. Soon the instruments gradually melt away, and the voices carry on with the two swaying chords, whose diminuendo is prolonged until we wonder whether we still hear them or only hold them in our memory, swinging backward and forward for all time.” Peter Laki © 2017 Copyright © Musical Arts Association