2014, in term 3 the middle and senior schools studied “The Planets”, a seven-movement orchestral suite written by Gustav Holst (1874-1934). The first complete public performance of The Planets took place in London on November 15, 1920, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates. Each movement of the suite is named after a planet in the solar system and its corresponding astrological character as defined by Holst.
While you might think Holst was thinking about the solar system when he wrote The Planets, he was actually thinking about astrology. He was an amateur astrologer and based each movement of the work on what astrologers thought about the planets and the Roman God associated with each planet.
The planets that Gustav Holst uses in his work are: 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 All planets are represented with the only exceptions being Earth (which is not observed in astrological practice) and Pluto (which had yet to be discovered at the time of composition and has since been deemed a “dwarf planet”). The Planets is written in a musical style called Romantic. One feature of Romantic music is the use of a large orchestra with many instruments. Holst wrote The Planets to include some instruments not often heard in an orchestra such as the bass oboe, contra bassoon, bass clarinet, celesta, organ, and lots of percussion. Some contemporary composers have used themes from The Planets in music you may have heard. Music from The Planets can be heard in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, at the beginning of the scene when Luke Skywalker is trying to get Darth Vader into a shuttle craft and off the Death Star, which is on the verge of destruction. The theme from the Jupiter movement is also well known.
Listen to The Planets LIVE! On Saturday 6th December at the Vodafone Events Centre in Manukau
The suite opens with “Mars, the Bringer of War” dominated by a strong rhythmical figure which continues through the entire movement. It is a sound of menace, of inexorable marching and suggestive of the terrible destruction which war brings. Ironically, the frightening power of this movement is a harbinger, not a remembrance, of the horrors of World War I which Holst had yet to experience. The conductor Sir Adrian Boult commented: “I well remember the composer’s insistence on the stupidity of war as well as all its other horrors…. I feel the movement can easily be played so fast that it becomes too restless and energetic and loses some of its relentless, brutal, and stupid power.”
Star Wars Link: Much of the music written for movies is inspired by music such as Holst’s ‘Planets’. Sometimes even being directly copied!
The violence of Mars is contrasted with the peace, calm, and beauty of “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.” Instead of the harshness of the brass of “Mars,” the instrumentation now favors the serenity of harp, woodwinds, solo violin, solo cello, and celesta.
We are invited into a tranquil garden by a solo french horn accompanied by woodwind. A solo violin sings sweetly to us and all the time there is the gentle hum of bees and delightful tinkle of fountains, their crystal droplets falling like jewels.
The fleet-footedness of “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” is suggested by the quicksilver darting from instrument to instrument, especially the elusive celesta in this barely four minute movement.
“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” with its sense of humor, is the most popular of the movements and it conveys the astrological significance of Jupiter as benevolent(kind) and generous. Perhaps is is so popular because of its very English tune which is introduced toward the middle of the movement. Solemn and carol like, the melody was later arranged as the hymn tune Thaxted, after the village where Holst lived for many years. It has even been used as the theme of the Rugby Union World Cup since 1991.
“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” gives a moving picture of old age and a sense of mortality and finality. It is serene and somber, especially with its rhythmical base suggestive of a tolling bell which reaches a frightening climax, but gives way to a calm and peaceful resolution.
The staccato and bouncy bassoons which characterize “Uranus, the Magician” sometimes remind listeners of Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” but Holst had never heard the work, nor seen the score when he wrote this movement. Present also is a four note figure which in its various permutations might be thought of as the conjuring or “spell” motif. There is a rather macabre middle section, a sort of grotesque march, but the music returns to a mystical and magical quietness in the close.
To convey “Neptune, the Mystic,” every instrument plays pianissimo in a succession of chords and tones which convey a sense of timelessness. Especially contributing to the effect is a women’s chorus which so quietly enters as to go almost unnoticed and which continues until it melts away with an undulating two chords which fade into silence.