Gustav Holst’s The Planets was inspired by astrology, which he was introduced to in 1913 while vacationing in Spain with composer-and-writer brothers Arnold and Clifford Bax. Holst was entering his 40s but so far had found only limited recognition as a composer. He worked as a teacher—by all accounts, an excellent one—and served as head of music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, London. He had previously written a substantial number of choral and orchestral works, some inspired by English folksong and others by Sanskrit texts and Hindu philosophy. Either uninterested or uncomfortable with the prospect of writing a mature symphony, which would have been a typical progression, Holst began to conceive of a different kind of largescale orchestral work: a suite in seven movements (“Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra” was his working title).
It took Holst almost four years to complete The Planets—composing in the soundproof music room of St. Paul’s on weekends and school vacations—and then it was another three years before a complete performance was staged in 1920. Earlier previews were limited to just a few movements because conductor Adrian Boult thought “when [listeners] are being given a totally new language like that, 30 minutes of it is as much as they can take in.” The piece quickly became extremely popular, and the shy and humble Holst achieved a level of celebrity he never really sought nor wanted.
Though The Planets clearly carries extramusical meaning, it was important to Holst to differentiate it from the kind of musical storytelling found, for instance, in the tone poems of Richard Strauss. “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no programme music,” he wrote. “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.”
At odds with Holst’s wishes, we nonetheless offer a brief guide:
Mars, the Bringer of War, was completed just before the outbreak of World War I, as if Holst could foresee the unprecedented conflict. Its driving, off-kilter march ends in a fractured climax. Venus, the Bringer of Peace, was written as the first news came of combat on the Western Front (Holst himself was unable to serve due to lifelong poor health). It is a lyrical and melancholy movement with horns and winds mingling with hushed strings. Mercury, the Winged Messenger, is rambunctious and fleeting, with silvery touches from the harp and celesta, and woodland dance rhythms. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, was heavily influenced by English folksong, broadening in the second half with a new theme marked Andante maestoso (majestic).
Now we are in the outer solar system, encountering stranger, more distant, planets. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, is a creaky giant, wheezy and weary, but still an eminent presence when roused. (This is the longest movement, and Holst’s favorite.) Uranus, the Magician, has a whole bag of tricks—entertaining, eccentric, and ambiguously threatening. Neptune, the Mystic, is cold and remote. Near the end, Holst introduces a hidden chorus of sopranos and altos, sung at the first performance by his own students. The most human sound in the entire piece is also the most unearthly, with the last bar repeated “until the sound is lost in the distance.”