Gustav Holst: The Planets

The Planets by Gustav Holst

As far as ambitious musical projects go, Gustav Holst’s Planets suite is one of the most pioneering of all.

Written between 1914-16 against the backdrop of the First World War and all the horror of that bloody conflict, it is perhaps fitting that the opening movement is Mars, The Bringer of War.

Holst sets an ominous, brooding scene (the field of war) which is underlined and propelled by a distinctive, machine-like rhythm that stays near constant throughout the movement in a kind of ostinato. It can be taken to represent the newly mechanised nature of warfare and its shocking early 20th century bloodshed.

The music which starts quietly, builds gradually, allowing us to survey what sounds increasingly like a post-apocalyptic world. Great use is made of the piercing, alarm calls of the brass instruments. After the initial material is put forward, a change of scene appears at 2.13.

Violent, slashing movements in the strings seem to anticipate horror movie soundtracks of the future.

The fingerprint of militaristic trumpet fanfares is unmistakable (2.21.) The bass line and harmonies shift uneasily as though they are unsure of where to plant their feet. There is some call and response dialogue between trumpets and horns, climbing the scale uneasily (perhaps two army generals discussing anxiously about what move to make next?)

The tension increases and the music suddenly spirals out of control (3.07.) A figurative bomb goes off and the battle scene goes deadly quiet, at least temporarily.

Twitching timpani reminds us that some life remains (3.21,) the dark sounding low string instruments probe uneasily. Holst’s music could have been tailor made for blockbuster movies such was his ability to slowly, inexorably build tension to breaking point with the cathedral-like sounds of his orchestral scoring.

The return of war becomes inevitable sadly and seizes us by the throat at 4.23 with a terrifying intensity. An invincible army is seemingly on the march, sweeping away everything in its path.

We are back at the opening music, only this time with a more devasting kind of energy. This music suggests no remorse, no mercy. Those trumpet fanfares return (5.18) and the horns answer back with menacing harmonies (5.30.)

The march toward oblivion is on the horizon and sure enough, an earth-shattering climax appears in all its dreadful, wanton violence at 6.18.

The squashed harmonies which are presented at 6.29 sound almost unbearably dissonant. These are contemplated briefly with a fading emphasis until darting strings scuttle around in a desperate to sweep everything up loose ends (perhaps Holst meant to portray survivors attempting to flee.)

If he did, they are mercilessly cut down with a succession of brutal pounding measures and the world is cast into perdition (7.11.)

The second movement represents Venus, the Bringer of Peace.

It’s a kaleidoscopic shift away from the anger and rage of Mars. The music is much slower and more sedate. Holst incorporates harps, flutes and creates ethereal solo violin passages which recall the Roman goddess herself.

A rather lonely and forlorn sounding horn opens the movement, before softly spoken strings and woodwinds respond with a descending, harmonically vague answer.

We can hear plucked harps at 0.40 which only adds further to the mysterious soundscape. The horn continues its dialogue, before the cellos lead a swelling mini climax (1.47.)

The somewhat unexpected gauche lurch at 2.20 reminds us that we’ve officially left the romantic age firmly behind and are in an uncertain new world of modern sounds.

The poignant strings continue their lament, intertwining their voices with the woodwinds. A moment of lush, verdant writing for the strings appears (3.44.)

Before long, we find ourselves back amongst the familiar strains of the opening theme. It’s as though we are floating through an ethereal landscape, rootless and without a clear direction of travel.

Like a fairy-tale approaching its closing pages, Holst somehow sprinkles fairy dust over the score and the music sparkles and shimmers to a close.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger is the 3rd movement.

This movement can be described as sprightly and energetic. Holst widens further his orchestral palette by adding a glockenspiel to his inventory. At just under 4 minutes, this is the shortest piece within the suite.

Whirling triplets spin out across the orchestra from the outset, setting an immediate tone of playful mischievousness. Those bluesy clarinets add a modicum of jazz into the mix. The bell-like ringing precedes a quickening of the pace (1.00) as Holst recycles a motif into ever more inventive shapes (1.21.)

This repeated motif runs out of steam eventually and the opening theme resumes its position at centre stage (2.01.)

The rapidity and scurrying energy never lets up and reflects perfectly the communicative nature which the planet is said to represent. These passages strongly suggest the constant flow and exchange of information. As with Venus, there remains a childlike curiosity within the music. This animated movement comes to a gentle close with an understated pluck of the harp.

Along with Mars, the 4th movement is probably the most well familiar and well-known of the planetary sketches. The subject for this one is Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.

Either side of the glorious tune in the middle which we will come to shortly, the music opens with a swirling kaleidoscope of notes, pulsating with energy. The sonorous brass instruments lay down the all-important foundations (0.06) – these become more insistent and are underpinned by rumbling timpani.

The lively exchanges continue until a new tune appears at 0.59 which borrows from and expands upon the opening motifs cleverly. The first two themes continue sharing their contrasts through playful dialogue when at 1.37, the brass announce the melody which will lead to the famous tune of the middle section.

Subdued, furtive measures precede the announcement of that tune, but when it appears at 2.55 it is instantly heartfelt and earnest in nature. Throughout a work that contains few genuine “show stealing tunes” this stands as an exception to the rule.

A hesitant conclusion at 4.37 gives pause for thought. The illicit, furtive passages lead us back a restatement of the opening bars (5.02.)

By 6.28, there is a hint of impatience in the air and the movement seems keen to reach a conclusion; Holst takes a sharp left turn at 6.57 and we veer in an unexpected direction. Momentarily, we wonder where we are heading – it turns out to be a brief diversion and the music closes out with a triumphant bang.

The 5th movement represents Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age.

Incidentally, this movement was Holst’s own favourite; the music begins in slow and unsettling form before expanding later into a heavy march.

There is an oppressive stillness in the unrelenting chimes which are heard against languorous and somewhat lazy bass strings (0.14.) Calling to mind old age, the pace is markedly ponderous and pedestrian with little of the energy displayed earlier in movements such as Mars, Mercury or Jupiter.

The cellos raise their voices (0.47) in a long, breathy counter statement, followed by the oboes (1.05.) There is no sense of urgency in this sound world – like the planet itself, we are an unfathomable distance from anywhere. Gradually the music builds in strength and purpose, harnessing the earnest but solemn energy of the building blocks set out in the opening minutes.

This is just a passing phase however and the volume recedes once again back into the mode of contemplation (3.38.) Perhaps Holst was not just writing about a planet, old age was the primary subject on his mind. The music could be taken to portray an elderly person looking back on their life through various emotional prisms, being moved occasionally to a state of passionate recollection (5.01.)

Somewhat unexpectedly, a raucous march breaks out (5.43) as though the old individual has momentarily lost control. The wild thrashing nature of the march fades almost as quickly as it surfaced and the prior sense of mystiques returns. A serene section appears at 7.29 complete with ringing bells and pizzicato harp – quite a surreal world of sounds, but set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world, it perhaps isn’t too surprising. The music then finds its way to a peaceful resolution.

With such unearthly sounds still fading away, we plunge straight into the next and 6th movement of the suite, Uranus, the Magician.

Blaring trombones vociferously declare the arrival of this mercurial planet and thundering timpani (0.17) ensure that we are paying attention. A rather peculiar, jaunty march composed of dotted rhythms heard initially in the lower bassoons (0.19) is heard. Xylophones provide flourishing accompaniment and we can perhaps imagine the magician summoning all kinds of bizarre elements whilst he busily prepares to cast a spell.

Trumpets playing snappy triplets add additional bite and effervescence until the horns lead with a kind of danse macabre (1.22.) Once this burst of energetic music dies away, that jaunty tune in the bassoons returns once again, embellished by a kind of whirling dervish (2.15) in the woodwinds.

This icy planet is represented in Greek mythology as the God of the Sky and Holst certainly makes full use of an already huge orchestra to demonstrate the impressive power and capability of the topic. The jaunty march seemingly cannot be suppressed (4.48) but a combination of full-throated brass and timpani do their best to extinguish it for good. A brief fade into nothingness closes the movement.

The composer perhaps saved his trump card for the very end here; the final movement is Neptune, the Mystic.

When scoring this movement as a piece for piano duet, he used an organ to represent Neptune, being of the belief that a simple piano simply wouldn’t do justice to a planet as mysterious as this one.

Exquisite, trance-like harp and string melodies slide over each other for just over 4 minutes of this movement – indeed, we could quite literally be floating through outer space – until Holst brings out the crowning glory: a mystical choir which lends the music a diaphanous, other-worldly quality. We can hear this extra dimension for the first time at 4.27.

Whilst the sounds Holst produces are undoubtedly mystical, there is also a slightly unsettling, eerie quality to it all. As the orchestral accompaniment falls away, the transcendental voices of the choir continue, gliding ever-upward into the ether, until they are heard no more, having left our dimension.

As an interesting footnote, Pluto was discovered in 1930, 4 years before the composer’s death and was hailed at the time by astronomers as the 9th planet. Holst however, expressed no interest in writing a movement for the new planet. He had become disillusioned by the popularity of the suite, believing that it took too much attention away from his other works. In 2006, Pluto’s status was reclassified to that of a “dwarf planet” and so perhaps Holst’s reluctance was proven right in the end.

Ironically, The Planets stands as the composer’s most popular and enduring work. At the time of writing, we are precisely 100 years on from the first complete performance of the suite, yet remarkably it still has the ability to shock, to soothe and make us feel all sorts of emotions.

It must therefore stand as one of the most impressive artistic achievements of the 20th century. If this is your first time hearing the entire work, stick with it – give it a few listens and it will start to make sense 😊

Happy space travel!