Holst began composing The Planets 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 World War I 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.) “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. Another influence 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.
“Mars, the Bringer of War” opens in ominous quiet, with the portent of a fierce martial confrontation. Brass fanfares blare contemptuously while timpani provide support. A sudden cessation of the activity is only a pause before an even more violent onslaught, with rhythmic punctuation throbbing mercilessly.
“Venus, the Bringer of Peace” is a tranquil scene cooled by flutes and an austere solo violin. A suggestion of sensuality evolves as the music gathers strength, but it is tempered by serene dissipation.
“Mercury, the Winged Messenger,” a dashing, stunning orchestral scherzo, features harps, celesta, and a solo violin dancing to an ephemeral tune. The fuller orchestral textures invest Mercury with a decidedly French Impressionistic character.
“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.
In “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” the aching despair of youth lost fills the section, first with solemnity, then with outrage as bells clang wildly. But the protest is futile, and the inevitable journey continues, this time ending in transfigured peacefulness.
“Uranus, the Magician”: Here, Holst unleashes diabolical energy, some of it reminiscent of some earlier conjurings by Dukas, Saint-Saëns, Mussorgsky – i.e., Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Danse Macabre, Bald Mountain.
“Neptune, the Mystic”: A pure other-worldliness, an aura of lost-in-space, permeates this final section. The transparency of the scoring is intensified by the disembodied sound of a wordless women’s chorus, the combination casting a spell that is wondrously mystic, transcendental. — Orrin Howard