Classical music for dummies: Holst’s Planets, Op. 32

Photo: Pixabay

This week’s choice is a collection of some of the best-loved pieces to be written in the last century or so, a good few of which will be recognisable. Continuing on the theme of programmatic music, it is Gustav Holst’s The Planets Op. 32, his seven pieces, one for each planet, scored for a mammoth orchestra. Inspired by his love of astrology, each planet is endowed with its traditional character.

First is the brash and confrontational Mars, The Bringer of War: the opening piece of the suite, it begins with a swelling five-beats-in-a-bar, burgeoning into a forceful military march (not dissimilar to and even the inspiration for John William’s “Imperial March” in Star Wars, among other space marches).

The Planets themselves were started around 1914, the year that marked the beginning of WW1, service in which Holst was exempted due to short-sightedness and recurring asthmatic complications, so this martial imagery would have been in the forefront of the audience’s mind. The suite was completed over the next eighteen months into 1916. Reportedly The Planets was a direct response to Arnold Schoenberg, the renowned Austrian serialist composer, and his innovative Five Pieces for Orchestra, which Holst had seen in London that year, hence The Planets original titling Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra. The novelty of Schoenberg’s modernistic pieces struck Holst and we hear some unusual instruments in use during the suite-in Mars, the euphonium, generally a concert band instrument (or baritone horn to give its orchestral name), lets fly in an infuriated tirade of a fanfare.

Gustav Holst was born in Cheltenham in 1874 to musical stock- his father Adolf was a piano teacher and his mother Clara, one of his father’s students. Though Holst, or von Holst as he was originally, sounds Germanic or Scandinavian, his family had resided in Britain since the beginning of the 19th century. Holst is considered among a number of significant composers in Britain at the turn of the 20th century, including his close friend and folk-revivalist Ralph Vaughan Williams (also a native of Gloucestershire), Arnold Bax, Edward Elgar and many others. The Planets are by a long way his most famous composition, along with other orchestral repertoire, a fair few operas and choral works. Moving on in the suite, the tranquil and soothing Venus, The Bringer of Peace, one of my personal favourites is next- the impressionistic, celestial chords beneath the French horn solo grant a particularly ethereal quality.

Again, like Mars and the rest, the cinematic qualities are clear to see, and indeed Holst himself wrote for the screen, one of the first generations of composers to have done so. Sadly though the films that he scored and even appeared in as an extra have been lost.

Like Vivaldi (covered last issue), Holst too managed to hold down a job as a music teacher, his main profession for the majority of his career, and he was a passionate one too, managing to fit in his composing over weekends and holiday. He considered the teaching of music to be as important as the composition or performance. Based in London during the week, teaching most famously at St Paul’s Girls School in the west of the city, any spare chance he got he would spend at his country residence in Thaxted, Essex, with his wife Isobel and young daughter Imogen.

Next is my other personal pick, the playful and capricious Mercury, The Winged Messenger– try and hear the glockenspiel imitating the darting melody as it frisks between nearly all the instruments.

At this point, Holst is a sprightly forty-something-year-old composer just about to enter the prime of his compositional career and it was the Planets that would make him a household name in the musical world. Having played separate movements to various associates, the piece as a whole was premiered in the last few weeks of WW1 by Sir Adrian Boult, one of the acclaimed conductors of the time, who together with Malcolm Sargent was a staunch proponent of contemporary British composers- indeed it was a heyday for this country’s musical scene- Boult conducted the Orchestra of the Queen’s Hall, where the piece was debuted.

Onwards and we have the jaunty, gleeful Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity, the most famous of the seven pieces, from which the hymn I Vow to Thee My Country, an unofficial English national anthem, was taken. Gleeful as it is Byzantine, the dance-like nature offers some cheeriness before the obscure and mystic final movements. As we heard one of Holst’s primary passions besides music was his love of astrology, a hobby of which he was terribly ashamed, begging people to keep it a secret. He had been introduced to it by a friend, Clifford Bax (brother of the composer Arnold) on a musician’s tour of Majorca as a young man and used to insist on taking horoscopes for each of his friends. At the time of the pieces’ composition- they were written between 1914 and 1916- Pluto had not yet been discovered and due to it being an astrological set, rather than astronomical, Earth does not feature. Holst struggled with the fame that he acquired with The Planets’ success- he complained bitterly that none of his other music got quite the same recognition. Indeed, it was not the quality that people were stunned by but the futuristic, but eminently listenable music of the suite that caught imagination.

Saturn, Bringer of Old Age, Holst’s personal favourite of the seven pieces, is a more sombre affair, as the suite brings us further and further from our cosy spot in the Solar System. A funereal dirge ensues, as the prospect of age encloses.

Another one of Holst’s hobbies was the study of Indian culture, teaching himself Sanskrit especially for the purpose of reading subcontinental literature in its original, a passion he shared with his contemporary, composer Edmund Rubbra. He reworked many of the great Hindi epics into well-received operas, that sadly no longer have much prominence in the canon.

Next is the occult Uranus, The Magician, impish and pompous at the same time, from crashing cymbals to strange diaphanous gongs. In terms of the Planets and its legacy, the piece has actually attempted to be extended. Despite Pluto’s discovery in Holst’s lifetime- he died in 1934 of a heart attack- the composer never wished to write any more movements, presumably due to his dissatisfaction at what the piece had become regarding his career. But there have been many attempts by many other composers to write a Pluto, an Earth, a Planet X and even one for the Asteroid Belt!

The final piece from the suite, the enigmatic Neptune, The Mystic, a piece that rarely for a symphonic piece includes a distant soprano chorus, a ploy by Holst to emphasise the vast space between here and the Blue Planet. When I saw the suite performed at the Proms in 2015, the members of the choir spread themselves apart all around the top tier of the Royal Albert Hall, metres between each other and processed out into the bowels of the venue- effective but tricky to remain together.



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