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Program Note: Holst’s The Planets

Theodore Gustav Holst

(Born in Cheltenham, England in 1874; died in London in 1934)

The Planets (Symphonic Suite), Op. 32

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  6. Uranus, the Magician
  7. Neptune, the Mystic

British composer Holst wrote The Planets between 1914 and 1917 while the world was in the throes of The Great War (World War I). At the time Holst was a devoted astrologer, and it was the astrological significance of the planets in our solar system that inspired his composition. Pluto had not yet been discovered, and Holst excluded from his symphonic suite both the Sun and the Earth, since we humans can’t see them in the night sky. Here are some of the great moments to listen for:

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War, is a terrorizing battle march in an off-kilter meter, and clearly an anti-war expression. Right away, Holst uses bold techniques to help us visualize the menace of the current warfare, such as the strings playing col legno (wood side of the bow tapping the strings). The opening rhythm is an incessant ostinato (repetition) which Holst hoped would portray both the terror and, especially, the insanity, of war.  Mars also introduces a grand array of unusual instruments, including the bass oboe and tenor tuba (typically played on a Euphonium), and organ.  Mars’ ending is one of crushing, mindless cruelty, and one of Holst’s most inspired moments.
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace, is not only a perfect remedy for the madness of Mars, but one of the most serene pieces Holst ever created. The opening horn solos are beautiful, aloof, and vast. Listen for the glockenspiel trading phrases with the celeste (a bell-like sounding keyboard), like distant falling stars.
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger and the “symbol of the mind” is a concerto for orchestra of sorts, with difficult, whirling passages for winds and strings. The effect makes us feel as if we’re hurling through time and space.
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, is one of the great pieces in Western music, not only for its jubilant, syncopated main theme played by the horns, but also for its exceptionally lyrical central hymn-like tune. In 1921 Holst turned that hymn into a British anthem titled “I vow to thee, my country.
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, is programmatic, first depicting the nebulousness of the beginning of life, followed by the resoluteness of middle age depicted by a calm march, then followed by a dirge, illustrating the depredations of aging, and finally ending in gentleness. As Holst said about this, his favorite movement, “Saturn not only brings physical decay but also a vision of fulfillment.”
  6. Uranus, the Magician, opens with an arresting four-note theme – first in the high brass, faster in the low brass, and more quickly in the timpani. It’s a kind of answer to Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, except with a great deal of power and maniacal dancing.
  7. Neptune, the Mystic, was in Holst’s time the mysterious planet that was believed to be at the farthest reaches of our solar system. Holst creates music for Neptune that has no real melody, floating without time. The ending is scored for a wordless female chorus to softly sing, off stage, such that doors can close them off into silence, until, as Holst’s daughter Imogen described, “… the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence.”  He was particularly fond of ending the Suite here in this manner, without fanfare, for, as he said, “In Life, there are few happy endings.”

Program note by © Max Derrickson