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Length: c. 48 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd = piccolo, 4th = alto flute and piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = bass oboe), English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, gong, orchestra bells, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, organ, strings, and women’s chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 14, 1925, Sir Henry Wood conducting
Gustav Holst was born on September 21, 1874, under the sign of Virgo, ruled by the planet Mercury. This planet, as Holst might have read in his copy of Alan Leo’s What Is a Horoscope and How Is It Cast? is “colorless,” a word that sums up what London critics thought of Holst’s music prior to 1920. Approaching the age of 40, Holst enjoyed many local performances, but was still essentially considered the music teacher of the young ladies of St. Paul’s School. The Planets changed all that. The sensation it created, in the words of musicologist Richard Greene, “dazzled both critics and audiences alike in a way not felt on English soil since Elgar’s Enigma Variations.”
That level of success is all the more surprising considering The Planets was an uncommissioned work composed in Holst’s spare time during three turbulent years of World War I, between 1914 and 1917. Interestingly, Mars, the Bringer of War was completed just weeks before the precipitating event of the war, the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Holst had long maintained an interest in ancient cultures, undertaking a study of Sanskrit in order to faithfully set his Choral Hymns of the Rig Veda. On one level “futuristic,” The Planets was also an opportunity for the composer to delve into the ancient science of astrology. This was, after all, an era teeming with interest in the mystic, primal, and archaic spirit, exemplified by Scriabin’s Prometheus and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the art of Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, among others.
Neither the planets themselves nor their mythological deity counterparts were the subjects of Holst’s orchestral suite; rather, the seven “tone paintings” were based on the characteristics of the human beings born under them. The following descriptions, in italics, are paraphrased from the Alan Leo book and the classic text of Hindu Vedic astrology known as the Parashar.
Mars is cruel, has blood-red eyes, and is prone to anger. The “Bringer of War” is introduced by strings which momentarily act as percussion, hammering out a rhythm col legno (literally “with the wood” of the bow) that hints of a military march, but is organized in odd patterns of five. This rhythm, along with so many of the work’s melodic and harmonic devices, represents one of the profound strengths of The Planets: its ability to mix, on a very simple musical level, the familiar and the other-worldly, the down-to earth and the extra-terrestrial.
Venus is splendorous, has lovely eyes, and is the inspirer of poets. It is tempting to apply our contemporary Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus psychology to these first two movements, but the composer never made such gender allusions. The intention was, according to Holst’s daughter and biographer Imogen, simply to “bring the right answer to Mars.” “The Bringer of Peace,” therefore, exists in a serene land that cannot be disturbed. Steady pulses freely undulate their way through this tender scene with light orchestration and a gentle sense of rubato. More familiar, Romantic progressions abound including a Tristan-esque climax.
Mercury is witty, fond of jokes, and is learned. Mercury, the “Winged Messenger of the Gods” is Holst’s scherzo (literally “joke”), portraying a trickster with a playful, child-like ease of movement. The virtuosic scalar runs that bounce almost imperceptibly from instrument to instrument suggest, as Richard Greene has pointed out, “the nimbleness of the thought-processes of a genius too quick to follow.”
Jupiter has large limbs and possesses a spirit which gives faith and abundant hope. “The Bringer of Jollity” is the most clearly maestoso, or majestic, of the movements, presenting several themes, each one related to the last, that draw on the folk-song style cultivated by fellow composers Elgar, Delius, and Vaughan Williams so successfully. The lack of transitional material or development portrays a character without complexity of thought, simply wrapped up in the noble pageantry of the moment.
Saturn is lazy, lame, and has coarse hair. The undulating, disorienting chords which open “The Bringer of Old Age” portray the ticking of a clock, presenting a kind of meditation on the disease, death, and suffering that are an inevitable part of life. The basses struggle in their lowest registers to present a theme, but it is frail and limited. The powerful transformation that follows suggests the elderly’s dignified, patient wisdom.
Uranus is eccentric, possessing a nervously organized temperament quite out of the common. The music for “The Magician” suggests the image of a bumbling wizard, reminiscent of Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice. This movement, providing a bit of comic relief to the suite, literally disappears, as in a puff of smoke. The adagio coda has a foreboding mystery, suggesting that the wizard had more serious intentions.
Neptune, a psychic, lives purely, sensing vibrations that rarely come to ordinary human beings. It has been suggested that “The Mystic” was, for Holst, a musical representation of a kind of Nirvana for which he always strived. The texture of the music contains a provocative combination of a static surface with intense activity beneath. The influence of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, can be felt in the use of Klangfarbenmelodie (sound-color melody), in which each note of a melody is played by a different instrument. Female voices appear, come to rest on two repeating chords, and fade into the infinite.
There is a reason why so many film composers have looked to this work to characterize their music of the stars. It is that, with The Planets, Holst accomplishes what all science fiction attempts: an exploration of human consciousness set against the backdrop of space, allowing imagination to fill the void.
– Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli