Gustav Holst: The Planets

Written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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Though Gustav Holst’s The Planets is a foundational piece of space music—a sonic accompaniment for children learning about the solar system and an inspiration for sci-fi scores from The Twilight Zone to Star Trek to Star Wars—the piece was inspired less by astronomy than by astrology. The composer was a bit embarrassed by his interest in this pseudoscience, which he learned about in 1913 while vacationing in Spain. He professed not to take it seriously as fortunetelling, but admitted to a fascination with human personalities and how they might be affected by celestial bodies. The movements’ subtitles—“The Bringer of War,” “The Bringer of Peace,” “The Bringer of Jollity,” and so forth—suggest earthly affairs as much as anything beyond our orbit.

As a young man in 1895, Holst had earned a scholarship to the Royal Conservatory of Music. Ralph Vaughan Williams was a fellow student, and they became lifelong friends, offering each other constructive critiques and encouragement. Holst’s first employment was as a trombonist in theater orchestras, but he soon gave that up to become a teacher at the James Allen Girl’s School and musical director at St. Paul’s Girl’s School, both in London. By all accounts he was an excellent teacher who took seriously the musical talents of young women. His students participated in many of his pieces and were sometimes entrusted with preparing scores and sheet music, especially when bouts of inflammation prevented him from writing things out by hand.

Though respected as an educator, Holst had received only limited recognition as a composer as he neared 40. This didn’t necessarily bother him—he detested publicity and was content with small and semi-private performances. Imogen Holst, his daughter and biographer, paraphrased his outlook: “A piece of music was either good or bad. If it was good it would speak for itself. Why dress it up in headlines, and concoct little paragraphs about it for the gossip columns of the evening papers?”

Yet in 1911 he made a New Year’s resolution to be more ambitious. He had already written a number of choral and orchestral works, some inspired by English folksong and others by Sanskrit texts and Hindu philosophy. Soon he began to conceive a new kind of orchestral suite with the working title “Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra”—what we now know as The Planets.

It took Holst almost four years to finish the piece—composing in his soundproof music room at St. Paul’s on weekends and school vacations—and then he waited another three for a complete performance, in 1920. Early previews were limited to just a few movements because the 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.” But he underestimated his audience—the piece quickly became extremely popular, and Holst achieved a level of celebrity he almost instantly regretted. “Gushing admirers were the plague of his life,” recalled Imogen. “His ‘enemies’—those who hated his music with a hatred that seemed almost personal in its intensity—he could easily ignore, but the adoration of some of his disciples could be painfully embarrassing.”

The Music

It was important to Holst to differentiate the musical symbolism of The Planets from the kind of epic musical storytelling found 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, especially if it be used in the broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also the more ceremonial type of rejoicing associated with religions or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment. Mercury is the symbol of mind.”

Despite Holst’s wishes, here is a slightly more elaborate guide to the music:

Mars, the Bringer of War, was completed just before the outbreak of World War I, as if Holst could foresee the 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 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. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, was heavily influenced by English folksong, broadening in the second half with a plummy strings-and-brass theme marked Andante maestoso (majestic).

Now we gaze to 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. Uranus, the Magician, has a whole bag of tricks—entertaining and eccentric, wobbling between frightening and just-kidding.

At last, Neptune, the Mystic, is cold and remote. “The strange chords in Neptune make our ‘moderns’ sound like milk and water,” wrote Ralph Vaughan Williams in a forward for his friend’s biography. “Yet these chords never seem ‘wrong’, nor are they incongruous.” Here Holst introduces an offstage 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.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.