Holst: The Planets

Gustav Holst was an early 20th-century British composer. He was born in 1874 to a Swedish father and an English mother, and spent his childhood surrounded by music. From the age of 19, he studied at the Royal College of Music in London. Although he was initially drawn to composition, his works failed to attract much attention or support him financially. As a result, he played trombone with the Carla Rosa Opera Company and taught music. He became music master at St Paul’s Girls School in 1905 and Director of Music at Morley College in 1907.

Holst continued composing in many forms, such as choral works (The Hymn of Jesus, 1917), opera (The Perfect Fool, 1923), orchestral works (Egdon Heath, 1927) and Two Suites for Military Band (1909). However, it is the orchestral suite The Planets that made him famous overnight. This spectacular and colourful work has influenced generations of film-score composers.

The Planets

The seven-part suite was written between 1914 and 1917. Each movement describes the astrological (not astronomical) and mythological associations of the seven planets. Earth is excluded and Pluto was not discovered until 1930. Holst was introduced to the study of astrology by his friend the writer Clifford Bax and became skilled in the reading of horoscopes. This interest suggested to Holst the astrological qualities of The Planets and provided a scheme for an extended orchestral suite. The first performance was on November 15th 1920. Holst was most dismayed by the international popularity of The Planets. It was his only composition to reach such a wide audience. He thought it very atypical of his composition style and regretted it. It is sad that such a great work of art, loved the world over, was resented by its own creator. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Holst’s best friend and fellow composer, once said The Planets was “the perfect equilibrium” of Holst’s nature – the melodic, precise and structured, combined with the mystic and unexplainable.

The Planets is arranged in pairs, with adjacent movements providing maximum contrast. The orchestra will be playing three movements this evening.

Mars, the Bringer of War

This movement has an aggressive character shown through the low, menacing melody and the anxiously repeating pattern in 5/4 time, which evokes the martial rhythm of field drums. The strings use a technique known as col legno (tapping with the wood of the bow) to produce the percussive effect. Generous use of brass instruments amplifies the militaristic tone. A great discord eventually brings the onslaught of battle to a temporary halt. A slower section is haunted by the martial rhythm before the allegro returns with increased, almost hysterical ferocity that ends with grinding chords.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace

This movement begins with a French horn call answered by soft flutes in the cool high register, which is a Holst trademark. With the undulating chords for strings and the melodic violin solo in the key of F#, Venus has an unmistakable air of remote calm. Utter serenity prevails, yet this movement is not without interesting melody or musical content. It is quite lovely, and the fact that it follows violent and thunderous Mars only serves to highlight this.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

This is perhaps the most well-known and popular of all the movements. It has an overall air of grand importance, and the jolly feel is highlighted by the C major key in which it is written. The whole movement sounds exhilarating, bringing the sense of joy that was in the composer’s mind when he wrote it. The glorious ballad section in the middle suggests a typically English scene, and has inspired many patriotic hymns in both England and America. It was some years after Holst wrote this movement that he was asked to set the words of ‘I vow to thee my country’ to music, and he was relieved to discover that they ‘fitted’ the tune from Jupiter.