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What an astonishment the Age of Aquarius would have been to Gustav Holst (1874-1934). Its focus of attention on astrology can almost certainly be credited with the renewal of interest in his orchestral suite, The Planets. And since the British composer was distressed at the immediate success of the seven-movement work when it was introduced in 1919 - he never considered it one of his best efforts - its rebirth could only cause him further chagrin. Come to think of it, he might also find it a little embarrassing to be told that his suite is shy one planet, although had he kept up with astronomical findings he would have learned of the discovery of the planet Pluto in 1930.
Holst began composing the work in 1914, yet, in spite of the first section's title, "Mars, the Bringer of War," it is not a war piece, for Holst was into it before the holocaust started. The composer, a man of intellect and wide-ranging interests, found musical inspiration in diverse places. "As a rule," he said, "I only study things that suggest music to me. That's why I worried at Sanskrit." (When he became interested in Hindu literature through translations, he proceeded to learn the original Sanskrit and wrote several Hindu-inspired works including two operas, Sita and Savitri.) "And then," he concluded, "recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me."
In his preface to The Planets, Holst advised that there is no program in the pieces and that the subtitles should be sufficient to guide the imagination of the listener. Holst's own imagination had been stimulated by many things, not the least of which was the great literature of English folk songs, introduced to him by his life-long friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams. A stronger influence perhaps was that of Stravinsky, whose music had greatly impressed Holst before he took on the universe, the effects of which in The Planets can be seen in the very large Firebird and Petrushka kind of orchestration, in insistent rhythms, and also in striding rhythmic shifts. Holst's musico-spatial explorations may not be cosmic, but they are brilliant, dramatic, and picturesque enough to fit into almost anyone's concert hall horoscope.
"Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," is the most thoroughly English section of the work, with Jupiter's high spirits projected through a broad, infectiously energetic melody. A stately, more serious processional theme then enters, its royal dignity fully intact, after which the vigorous melody returns.
- Orrin Howard