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Gustav Holst: The Planets Suite Essay, Research Paper

Gustav Holst: The Planets Suite

Music derived from astrology is surprisingly rare. The ancient Greek philosophers, whatever their intellectual attitudes towards astrology may have been, were certainly not ignorant of astrological teachings and ideas. It was they, after all who put forward the idea of the “Music of the Spheres”, the idea that these vast objects twirling around and whirling through space, must have hummed a tone as they went along their courses, much as a ball spun on a string will whistle. They knew of seven planets: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Not surprisingly, western music evolved with seven-tone scales. Music and astrology come together again in this suite devoted to the seven planets, though Uranus and Neptune have displaced the Sun and Moon. Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was apparently fascinated by various esoteric pursuits, such as astrology and Hindu philosophy, suggesting in particular a yearning to get to grips with matters of a spiritual nature. How far he got in this pursuit is unclear, but what is quite beyond doubt is the fact that The Planets is a deeply spiritual work, reaching a level of spirit expression that is rarely experienced in other works. Even without this added strength, the whole work is a sonic spectacle and has so many wonderfully exotic harmonies. Coloration, dramatic contrast and inventiveness make this the work of a genius. It was first performed in the autumn of 1918.

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Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a contemporary composer, who is best known for his composition, “The Planets”. He was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in western England. He was an organist and choirmaster at the local Gloucestershire church, but he had neuritis in his right hand, which kept him from playing the organ. Since his neuritis kept him from playing the organ, Holst then turned to the trombone. From 1895 to 1898, he studied composition at the Royal College of Music. He eventually became an orchestral trombonist, after teaching composition at Stanford University for some time. In 1905, Holst was chosen as the Director of Music at the St. Paul’s Girl’s School in Hammersmith, just west of London, which he did for almost of the rest of his life. One of Holst’s contemporaries and good friends was the noted composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. They often wrote letters, exchanging critiques and ideas. Holst had a wife, Isobel, and a daughter, Imogen.

Holst’s most famous work, The Planets, is a seven-movement orchestral suite. Each movement represents a different planet in our solar system. Since The Planets is a work based on astrology, the Earth is ignored in the movements. It should also be noted that this piece was also written before Pluto was discovered, thus it only contains seven movements.

The first movement, Mars, the Bringer of War emphasizes bass and low brass using an unusual 5/4 rhythm. The greatest moment in war-torn Mars comes shortly before the end as the orchestra rises to a massive climax, supported by organ and gong. It is a moment of sheer terror, transformed into a still darker terror, as the same two-note motif is repeated in a lower register but still highly dissonant. This is the first ’spiritual’

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moment of the work, in my opinion: the wrath of God at the warring, sinful nature of Man and the consequences of this, as I see it. Holst brings the full horror of mechanized warfare to the listener face to face in this bleakest of all tone poems. Its face is unrepentant, unrelenting, and merciless and it offers us no hope of redemption. Thousands of pairs of jackbooted feet parade across the landscape, hurrying to their graves. Tanks pound cities into rubble. Bullets fly and bombs fall. Airplanes swoop low overhead. How surprising it is then, to learn that Holst completed this piece long before the opening of the First World War, before the invention of the tank, before any plane had ever been fitted out to carry bombs, before the slaughter in the trenches, and before the invention of poison gas.

The second movement, Venus, the Bringer of Peace is, as its title suggests, a softer and more melodious movement. Venus is peaceful with beautiful and unusual harmonies, but here I find little of a ’spiritual’ nature to comment upon. The very picture of beauty and refinement in taste, this is the Venus of ancient Rome: a sprite of gardens and flowers, feminine yet tame and without guile or wiles. This provides the counterpoint to the unshackled violence of Mars.

The third movement, Mercury, the Winged Messenger contains a swift and roaming melody. Fleet-footed Mercury flits about through this piece sounding not unlike a cosmic butterfly. He belongs very much in the Garden of Venus that precedes him in the performance.

The fourth movement, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity emphasizes a moving but unhurried bright melody. Jupiter is a tour-de-force of orchestration and melody, and it is

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quite an inspiration for the listener. The spirit of this music is very much in keeping with the astrological significance of Jupiter as the planet of benevolence and generosity. This is not the adulterous Jupiter of mythology, though flirtation is not out of the question. We hear him chasing but not catching the ladies. He invites all to dance, then seems not to favor any one of them any more than the others – one of those men who loves all women because they are women and for no other reason. The music emerges from its cavorting, twirling and gamboling out onto a central plateau of graceful dance music, and then sinks back into the carefree patterns of before. A very famous poem, near and dear to British hearts, was later set to this music and the two have been inseparable ever since. It was played at the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana:

And there’s another Country

I’ve heard of long ago,

Most Dear to them that Love her,

most Great to them that Know.

We may not count her Armies.

We may not see her King.

Her Fortress is a faithful Heart;

her Pride is Suffering.

And Soul by Soul and silently,

her shining Bounds increase

And her ways are ways of Gentleness

and all her paths are Peace!

We may not count her Armies.

We may not see her King.

Her Fortress is a faithful Heart;

her Pride is Suffering.

And Soul by Soul and silently,

her shining Bounds increase

And her ways are ways of Gentleness

and all her paths are Peace!

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The fifth movement, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age has a slow, calm, and quiet melody, restful in its lethargy. Saturn represents old age and our mortality very effectively. The opening is made to plod along tragically slowly, as if there is nothing left but to wait for death to come. The music builds to a stern climax that breaks off suddenly to the skeletal discordant bell-tolls as death arrives. This fades leaving us temporarily in an eerie stopover world. Suddenly the mood is transformed as the listener is now taken to an ethereal and magical ‘heaven’. Holst is clearly making a spiritual statement in Saturn about the process of death and the certainty of a ‘heaven’ (he may have thought more of a cosmical union perhaps). Within the magical heaven, very deep bass tones from the organ are giving a solid floor to the sound, and we become aware (when listening spiritually) of the presence of some great ‘being’, whose universe we’ve now entered. Just a few bars from the end, the deep organ pedal is raised by a perfect fifth – a tremendously spiritual moment which for the listener is like a brief vision of God. Serene and deliberate are the words best describing the tone of this piece. We can hear Saturn coming in from a long ways off, with a steady yet plodding gait and with a steady yet plodding gait he comes, as surely as the frost and winter follow upon the summer, as surely as the evening follows the afternoon, as inevitable as death and taxes. Yet, when he arrives, we find him not nearly so dreadful as his heavy steps led us to believe. The deliberation is still there, the uncompromising observance of structures and the law, yet what he creates for us is not without its beauty, crystalline like the snowflakes, serene in the stoic acceptance of his own mortality and finitude, content with the meaning he finds there.

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The sixth movement, Uranus, the Magician portrays musically a misty, distant heavenly body. Uranus is said to be a sonic spectacle and a sense of mischief abounds. This is not the god Uranus of mythology we meet here, but Uranus as the ruler of Aquarius. This magician is bumbling and accident prone, but also a born performer who cannot resist just one more try, one more kick at the cat, before the men in white suits come to take him away – but this veil of eccentricity cloaks deep wisdom and a knowledge of the infinite. On the last try, he gets it right and we hear the opening of the doorway into eternity.

Finally, we come to Neptune, the Mystic; a truly extraordinary movement. We are transported unimaginable distances from the earth, into awe-inspiring nether regions of the universe, detached from all things familiar in worlds of unending mystery. This is profoundly spiritual music, yet I’m not sure what it succeeds in saying. It is perhaps a vision of infinite nothingness, of vast distances, of space. Above all, the warm, assured presence of God (if perhaps also powerful and fear-provoking), which we left in Saturn, has disappeared. Neptune is cold, and as the female choir fades away, it is a lonely place. Much like Uranus, Neptune, the Mystic portrays musically a misty, distant heavenly body that includes a choral section, singing wordless melodies. This is the eternity that Uranus has revealed to us. The chasm opens and we step out into the void. We have a sense of a floating cascade through empty space, through Neptune’s watery depths. Celestial harmonies surround us and we hear choirs of angels receding into the distance.

In conclusion, I would like to state why I chose this work of Holst’s for my final Contemporary Music History paper. The Planets was one of the first orchestral works

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that I was exposed to as a child. My grandmother bought me a classical CD after I decided to take up the Trumpet in private study, which contained The Planets on it. I can’t even begin to describe how taken I was by this piece. It inspired me to start studying music theory and composition, so I could begin to understand how Gustav Holst made this spectacular work. Since then, I have played the suite twice as an orchestral musician. This is a piece that will always be special in my heart, and I know that if I wasn’t exposed to it at such an early age, you might not have seen me in this class, or even at the college, studying music, the real love of my life.

1. Gustav Holst. By Imogen Holst. Oxford University Press (1938, rev. 1969).

2. Gustav Holst, The Man and His Music. By Michael Short. Oxford University Press (1990).

3. A Scrapbook for the Holst Birthplace Museum. Compiled by Imogen Holst.

4. Greene, Richard. Holst, The Planets. Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

5. Holst, Imogen. The music of Gustav Holst. London, Oxford U.P., 1968.

6. http://www.aquarianage.org/lore/holst.html

7. http://www.best.com/~nebulosa/holst.html

8. http://www.meteo.physik.uni-muenchen.de/~paul/musem.html#HOLST

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