Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

The Planets, Op. 32

  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

Gustav Mahler may have been a man of agonies and ecstasies, but Gustav Holst was the more interesting guy to know. An inquisitive man of the world, a socialist in the Pre-Raphaelite mold of William Morris, a firm agnostic with a magnetic attraction to religion and a creative teacher at a school for girls, he physically resembled Clark Kent but composed like Superman. Holst played for British troops in Salonika and Constantinople during The Great War. He taught himself Sanskrit to translate the Rig Vedas and Mahabharata into choral and operatic works. His musical fascination with the world’s religions – spanning Christianity (his cantata Hymn of Jesus), Hinduism (the opera Savitri) and the gods of the Roman pantheon (The Planets) – seemed dedicated to the proposition that all religions are created equal.

In 1913, Holst was nearing 40 and feeling dispirited over his inability to make a living as a composer (“I’m fed up with music,” he wrote, “especially my own”). To cheer him up, his friend, the author Clifford Bax invited him along on a tour of Spain and Majorca with his brother, composer Arnold Bax, and music patron Henry Balfour Gardiner. Holst was a sullen companion, often striking out on his own apart from the others, but he took an interest in an astrology book that Clifford had brought along and began to ponder the musical and mythical identities of the seven known extraterrestrial planets (Pluto the dwarf planet wasn’t revealed until 1930). In 1914 – with eerie prescience – he began sketching Mars, the Bringer of War just weeks before Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and finished laying it out during a bucolic summer cottage stay as the guns of August roared toward Tannenberg and the Marne.

Listen to Gustav Holst conducting the London Symphony in 1926

Mars, Bringer of War musical-noteVenus, Bringer of Peace musical-noteJupiter, Bringer of Jollity musical-note

Holst completed the rest of the suite over the next two years – his own pet project unhurried by any commission or prospect of performance (the war made it nearly impossible to assemble the extravagant forces called for in his “suite for large orchestra”). The first performance was a private concert organized by Balfour Gardiner for 250 invited guests on September 29, 1918 as a gift to Holst (the giddy composer told Adrian Boult, “[he] has given me a wonderful parting present… Queen’s Hall, full of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, for the whole morning of Sunday week. We’re going to do The Planets, and you’re going to conduct!”). The first complete public performance on November 15, 1920 was a seismic event that catapulted Holst into the first rank of English composers, though he never again attempted anything as audacious or sweeping in scope – and The Planets has been a favorite of audiences for nearly a century.

There have been odd attempts over the years to “finish” the suite. Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic improvised Pluto, the Unpredictable at a 1972 Young People’s Concert, and English composer Colin Matthews composed Pluto, the Renewer for the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester in 2000. In fact, a case could be made that Holst himself composed an Earth movement – his 1922 ballet music to The Perfect Fool, which invokes the ancient elements of Earth, Water and Fire. The seven movements of the suite are:

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War – With its relentlessly hammering 5/4 beat and an ominously growling theme, Mars paints a scene of horror unlike any musical depiction of war written before it. A tenor tuba solo answered by heroic trumpets briefly heralds a futile rally that, in the end, yields to the desolation and calamity of total warfare and the harsh finality of the angry chords that conclude the piece. Late in his life, Boult recalled, “I well remember [Holst] saying that he wanted the stupidity of war to stand out.”
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace – An intentional contrast to what precedes it, Venus evokes the calm, still beauty of classical figures shaded in Impressionist pastel. At the first performance, the musicians were packed so closely onstage, elbow by elbow, the hornist reportedly cracked the opening solo and had to restart five times.
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger – The last movement Holst completed – and the briefest – this is virtuoso writing of wispy, restless, swirling motion.
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity – Brash, bold and barreling, this is exuberant music whose central anthem like a Pomp and Circumstance march – the only big theme in the suite allotted to the string section – Holst set to the words: I Vow to Thee, My Country.
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age – Heavy, lumpish and plodding yet driving steadily and pitilessly onward like a ticking clock, Saturn was Holst’s favorite movement, and he urged Boult to “make the climax as big and overwhelming as possible.”
  6. Uranus, the Magician – Low brass and timpani sound an ominous four-note “spell” motif that continually pops in and out of a bumptious skipping dance whose feel is like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but more drunken and demonic. A sinister little march strikes up and builds to a mighty climax capped by an upward sweeping pipe organ glissando. The magician hangs quietly in mid-air until explosive timpani signal his final catastrophe, and the four-note “spell” music evaporates into the mist like the sorcerer.
  7. Neptune, the Mystic – Low flutes sing a mysterious duet whose dissonances – hard to believe now – were once considered “difficult” and taxing to an audience’s ears. Through a fog of low-pitched woodwinds and sparkling harps and celesta, there emerges from offstage an angelic choir of wordless female voices. In a coloristic masterstroke, Holst calls for the gradual closing of the stage doors so that the ethereal voices seem to die away into the infinite vastness of space.