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 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
movements are arranged in pairs, with adjacent movements providing
maximum contrast. the orchestra will be playing three 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. He was relieved to discover that they
‘fitted’ the tune from Jupiter … musical serendipity!