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GUSTAV HOLST (1874-1934)

The Planets, Suite for Large Orchestra, Op.32 (1916)

I. Mars, the Bringer of War

II. Venus, the Bringer of Peace

III. Mercury, the Winged Messenger

IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

V. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age

VI. Uranus, the Magician

VII. Neptune, the Mystic

A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, Gustav Holst defined the sonic final frontier with The Planets. The sheer size of the work is planetary, enlisting a galactic armada of four flutes, two piccolos, alto flute, three oboes, bass oboe, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, two tenor trombones, bass trombone, tenor tuba, bass tuba, six timpani (two players), a vast percussion arsenal, two harps, celesta, organ, strings, and a hidden choir of female voices (performed on synthesizer).

 

It’s legacy is ubiquitous in the Hollywood epics and space operas. Traces, and often blatant copying, find seed in a constellation of blockbuster scores, from John Williams's Star Wars, Jerry Goldsmith's Star Trek, John Barry's The Black Hole, Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future, Hans Zimmer's Gladiator, and countless others. Yet, not many have boldly gone where Holst daringly ventures. Composers have contributed companion works, but another planetary orchestral suite of equal measure has yet to enter the repertoire. The symphonic rights to the solar system are Holstian. Although, one planet is noticeably absent, Earth. As much as the music expresses the otherworldly, it's an earthly view; music of the spheres that speaks so poetically to the home world's beauties, horrors, and possibilities.

 

The Planets is a product of its time. Stravinsky's notorious premiere of The Rite of Spring headlined the spring of 1913. In January of 1914, Arnold Schoenberg gave his London conducting debut in the second performance of Five Pieces for Orchestra. These monumental 20th century works called for mega-sized orchestras and opened new rhythmic, harmonic, and orchestral possibility. So apparent were these influences one critic described The Planets as the "English Sacre du Printemps." The work might still be known in a parallel universe by its original, Schoenberg-inspired title, Seven Pieces For Orchestra. With the looming threat of the First World War, the pulse and rhythms of battle found cover in the suite's opening movement. On July 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated with a gunshot heard worldwide.

 

Holst's interest in astrology was the muse for The Planets, writing, "as a rule I only study things which suggest music to me…recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me." Composed over three years (1914-16), Holst wrote in peaceful settings, at a cottage in Thaxted, Sussex, and in the sound-proof room at St. Paul's School for Girls. Work on Mars started in May (before the war), with Venus and Jupiter completed by the year's end. Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune followed in 1915, and Mercury came in 1916. The composer described the work as "mood pictures" and had been studying Alan Leo's "What is a Horoscope?." Much of the astrological characteristics come from Leo's descriptions. 

 

Unperformed for two years, a performance opportunity came as a parting gift. Weeks before the Armistice on November 11, 1918, Holst was ordered to Salonika, Greece to teach music to soldiers through the YMCA. Balfour Gardiner (a composer and promoter of British music) gifted Holst with the use of Queen's Hall and the Orchestra for a Sunday morning, less than a week away. The composer seized the moment and called upon conductor Adrian Boult, “We're going to do The Planets, and you're going to conduct." 

 

Parts were hastily copied out by the entirety of St. Paul's School. The chorus, conscripted from Holst's students at St. Paul's and Morley College, joined a combined rehearsal on Sunday morning, September 29, 1918, from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, the informal performance followed. The endeavor was successful in securing a public premiere. Public performances followed but were incomplete. Boult worried all seven planets (about 52 minutes of music) was too demanding of the general public, writing "I do feel most strongly that when they are given a totally new language…30 minutes of it is as much as they can take." Albert Coates conducted the public premiere of the entire suite on November 15, 1920, with the London Symphony Orchestra. Holst provided the following program note for the concert:

 

"These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no programme music, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it be used in the broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also the more ceremonial type of rejoicing associated with religions or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment. Mercury is the symbol of mind."

 

I. Mars, the Bringer of War

The music of Mars has been called "the most ferocious piece of music in existence.” Holst abandons heroic idealization, and expresses the horrors of infinite warfare, bloodshed within the galactic theatre. The movement deploys a menacing and pervasive five-beat rhythm over its 7-minute bombardment, an unrelenting, unmovable, and monolithic war machine on the march. The harmonic battlefield commands the clash of worlds. Advancing legions of brass-clad chords take an invading posture, a frontal assault in all domains, land, sea, sky, cyber, and space. At the front line, strings strike the instrument with the bow's wood (col legno). It’s a quiet primitive terror, then a mechanic roar of sonic violence.

 

II. Venus, the Bringer of Peace

From the plumes and ashes of war, peace arises. Alan Leo writes, Venus "awakens the affectional and emotional side of her subjects, giving them a keen appreciation of art and beauty." At 8-minutes, Venus outnumbers war, a plea for sustained peace. Diplomacy echoes in the solo horn of the Adagio with a septet of flutes and oboes answering in harmony. The solo violin quickens the pace in the Andante, then the whole of the violins take the tune into an orbital register. The bass instruments enter near the end, grounding Venus to an earthlier realm before its message of peace and tranquility, attainable in the heavens of lingering violins, harp, and celeste, is given to the next planet for stellar broadcast.

 

III. Mercury, the Winged Messenger

Mercury is the shortest movement. The winged messenger has a delivery time of 4-minutes; not bad for interstellar mail service. Leo explains that Mercury is "the winged messenger of the gods" and "gives adaptability, fertility of resource, and the ability to use the mind in various ways." Mercury’s swiftness is immediate. A scherzo in spirit, the music interplays between 6/8 and 3/4 meters. High woodwinds, string pizzicato, harp, arpeggiated harmonies, and scales capture a light-footed stride. Short gestures are quickly transferred within the orchestra, a football of sorts. When the solo violin appears, the "message" is telephoned to oboe, flute, and celeste until the whole orchestra receives its contents. Mercury brings mostly good news, sweet, intimate, and playful, sometimes flamboyant. Given the rhythmic escapades of the final section, Mercury’s journey comes with a celestial hailstorm, an asteroid belt.

 

IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

Jupiter, king of the Gods, takes on a proper British sensibility as the largest planet. It imparts "an abundance of life and vitality," writes Leo. It also requires the most pages of the score with various themes and motives related to the first three notes. The opening string flurry propels the 7-minute movement into a gaseous atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. The first tune in the horns echo the rhythms of Stravinsky, from the Firebird's "Infernal Dance." The second big horn tune, a balletic waltz, gives new meaning to spacewalks, a celestial Sauté. Jupiter's iconic giant eye resides in the English-branded tune of the Andante maestoso. First sounding with strings, national joy is baked into the sound of English hymnody with a dash of Vaughn-Williams. In 1921, Holst set the tune to "I vow to thee, my country" after a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, and it has since become a British patriotic hymn.

 

V. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age

Leo describes Saturn's effect as making "the progress through life slow and steady," and was Holst's personal favorite. At 9-minutes, the desolate movement is the longest, bringing the gravity of knowledge in its slow breathing melodies, majesty in its profound statements, and passages of time in the trance-like ostinatos. Most of the work is a recurring pattern of alternating step-wise notes, sometimes split between groups (hocket). Holst was senior to Stravinsky by eight years, and this music has a kindred spirit to the younger's Rite of Spring (Introduction to the Exalted Sacrifice), a tip of the hat of sorts to both men entering their middle-aged years. Flutes and harp begin and end the movement, an image of Saturn's rings coming into full view; they recede into the vastness of space, the music floating further away.

 

VI. Uranus, the Magician

Where The Sorceress Apprentice (1897) of Paul Dukas channeled the enchanted brooms of a student's spell gone haywire, Neptune's magician is the headmaster warlock. The 6-minute spell-binder begins with the blast of four notes in the brass. These charmed tones are sprinkled throughout the movement and take on a life of their own, spawning ghosts. Leo writes, "Uranus will incline its subjects towards the metaphysical and occult side of life, producing eccentric, strange and erratic reactions." The scherzo buoyantly trods with three bassoons. Holst builds up the infectious rhythm with thrilling crescendos that bring the beat to near collapse. At the midsection, trombones take the central theme. The presence of Dukas is strongly felt; the master wizard unmasked. The music takes on a volatile transformation, a cosmic carnival, a parade of Uranian phantoms. Near the end, a stupendous organ glissando freezes the music to a sub-zero halt, the ice giant put to sleep. Remnants of charmed activity still glow and sparkle, but the journey continues to the far end of the solar system.

 

VII. Neptune, the Mystic

On the furthest planet, silence is golden, the music never goes above a pianissimo dynamic. Holst wanted to depict the wonders of space, the mysteries it presented, and the cosmic questions that may forever go unanswered. The low, breathy flutes are the first to speak, and there's still magic leftover in this tiny tune; Neptune is another ice giant. Schoenberg’s influence is strong in the ensuing music of tones, chords, and harp arpeggios. A conventional melody is missing, but a melody of sound color, Klangfarbenmelodie, takes orbit. With present ears, the hushed brass polychords may remind of a fictional planet, Tatooine. At the planet’s core, the sound of a hidden female chorus (played by synthesizer) enters seamlessly as an Oort cloud, wordless and hovering on a high G5. The music slowly fades into the great unknown, passing beyond the boundaries of the solar system with two chords in repetition. Holst instructs of the last measure: "this bar to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance."

 

Gustav Holst was born on September 21, 1874, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, and died on May 25, 1934, in London.

© Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

ABOUT THIS PERFORMANCE (MASTERWORKS 9):

Described as "the most ferocious piece of music in existence," Gustav Holst's galactic and sonic depictions of The Planets comes to the Waikiki Shell in the return of the Sheraton Starlight Series. Surf the symphonic solar system with JoAnn Falletta leading your Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra and acclaimed pianist Joyce Yang in the thunderous, flourishing and Nordic melodies of Edvard Grieg's impassioned Piano Concerto in A-minor.