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Gustav Holst (1874-1934) – Suite: The Planets
“As a rule I only study things which suggest music to me ... recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology ...” Thus, writing to a friend in 1913, did Holst confirm the source of inspiration for his Suite for Large Orchestra - a reminder, if any were needed, that Holst’s “planets” are not the celestial objects.*
Born in Cheltenham of Swedish stock, Holst’s “studying” began with piano. In 1893, he entered the RCM to study composition under Stanford. He also learned trombone, practising in a seaside band before joining the Carl Rosa Opera and Scottish Orchestras (1898-1903). He switched to teaching, at a Dulwich school (1903-20), St. Paul’s (1905-34), and Morley College (1907-24). With up to three day jobs to juggle, it’s a wonder that he found time to compose!
In 1907, following an Algerian cycling holiday, Holst wrote Beni Mora. The sound-world that he created in this exotic work presaged that of The Planets, which was completed in 1916. However, with war raging, a performance seemed unlikely until, in September 1918, an animated Holst buttonholed Adrian Boult: “I’ve been ordered to Salonika in a fortnight, and Balfour Gardiner 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!”
A few weeks later, Holst wrote to Boult from Salonika, still tingling with excitement and eagerly offering performance tips: “Mars. You made it wonderfully clear - now could you make more row? And work up more sense of climax? Perhaps hurry certain bits? Anyhow it must sound more unpleasant and far more terrifying. Saturn. Make the climax as big and overwhelming as possible. The soft ending will play itself as long as there is no suggestion of crescendo. The organ must be softer. Jupiter. As long as he gets the wonderful joyousness you gave him, he’ll do.”
Boult pondered The Planets for a lifetime. In 1974, to the record reviewer Trevor Harvey, he said, “I well remember [Holst] saying that he wanted the stupidity of war to stand out ... I heard those records and was appalled - I strongly feel that [Holst], like V.W., had a pretty wide view of the correct tempo for anything. They often said, ‘Do it your own way.’ BUT there is evidence that [Elgar] and others were rattled by the four-minute [78 r.p.m. side length] slavery, and let themselves be hurried ... I say definitely that rushing Mars à la Malcolm [Sargent] is not putting its stupidity first.”
Nowadays it seems incredible that, for many years, The Planets was considered “difficult” music. Boult himself recalled that, on the night before that first performance, “Geoffrey Toye pointed to the combination in Neptune of the E minor chord with G# and D# in the bass and said to him, ‘I’m sorry, Gustav, I think that is going to sound frightful.’” Holst concurred, but felt it unavoidable. Subsequently, Boult often performed extracts, convinced that a public being fed “a totally new language” could reasonably swallow only 30 minutes. Even in 1950, a BBC Director fretted over a proposed complete performance, considering it “... not particularly attractive to the public in its entirety.”
To justify his performances of extracts, Boult suggested: “I am quite sure that 90% if not 95% of people only listen to one moment [sic] after another, and never think of music as a whole at all.” Perhaps, then, we’d be well advised to ask: what of The Planets “as a whole”? A true suite, with neither symphonic architecture nor motto themes, its integrity depends on consistency of inspiration and orchestration, which Holst overlays with several binding patterns.
Most obviously, he maximises the contrast between successive movements: violent (Mars) to serene (Venus), static (Venus) to swift (Mercury), and similarly ethereal to opulent, vibrant to bleak, pallid to exhilarating, and tuneful to tuneless.
Moreover, movements can be paired by opposing characteristics: Mars with Venus (obviously), Mercury with Jupiter (athlete/couch potato), Uranus with Neptune (extrovert/introvert). Saturn, poor old soul, stands alone. These are not definitive!
Then again, following Holst’s movement titles, we could equally associate Mars with Venus and Jupiter with Saturn as pairs of contrasted “Bringers”, separated by Mercury as a scherzando interlude, leaving an apposite “Magician”/”Mystic” coupling as finale.
This last option is particularly revealing, because it has some formal justification: five ternary-form (ABA...) movements precede two in binary-form (AB), underlining a turning from the familiar to the imponderable. Considering Boult’s words, though, it matters not whether you are right, but only that you think!
Today’s audiences know and love The Planets, yet it’s always new for somebody. So this synopsis, while short, is hopefully sweet:
1. Mars, the Bringer of War hammers a fearsome, relentlessly jagged 5/4 rhythm. Long, baleful phrases contrast glittering martial fanfares, epitomising the “horror” and the “glory”. In the middle, an apparently poleaxed War remorselessly rises again, amplified, like the Apprentice’s enchanted broom sporting an X-certificate. Just like the real thing, Holst’s horrific vision of War seems not to know how, or when, to end.
2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace inhabits a tranquil garden engendered by the glowing, rounded contours of two alternating subjects. The first ascends on horn, reflected by descending woodwind chords, and becoming an undulating procession. Sinuous cellos preface the second, appearing on intimate solo violin. Decibels are limited to blissful wellings, the scene finally fading in a tinkling of Arcadian fountains.
3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger whirls around the orchestra in scurrying figurations. The central section is an amazing succession of eleven repetitions of a counter-subject, kaleidoscopically scored: this Mercury doesn’t just flit on scented zephyrs, he stirs storm-clouds in his wake. Finally these themes intertwine, before he “pops off” into the blue.
4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. Coruscating textures disgorge luxuriant themes of cholesterol-packed bonhomie. The movement’s heart harbours a grandiloquent tune, intended to portray Jupiter taking his ease (apparently, Holst was not thrilled to see this hijacked for a patriotic hymn), and recalled briefly during the resplendent coda.
5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age. Venus’s vibrant undulations degenerate to pale plodding. When a “tune” does surface, it is a dirge urging the creaking aged towards the gates of Hades. Following the awful climax, this depressing image becomes transfigured, to portray the other side of the coin of old age: autumnal serenity.
6. Uranus, the Magician casts a four-note spell, brazen ancestor of the ferocious motto of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony. The main tune develops from lolloping bassoons to a brilliant climax, thence to a march-like melody which is whipped up still more brilliantly. The four-note motive, active throughout, echoes alone in the spell-binding coda.
7. Neptune, the Mystic is virtually devoid of melody and rhythm. A bare phrase, like a refrigerated mutation of Uranus’s motive, is merely a frame supporting ethereal harmony and icily glistening colours. In this sterilised atmosphere you imagine voices. Then, in the emerging second part, you gradually become aware that there are voices. But, what voices! A chilling, remote siren-song dissipates the orchestral texture until only that eternal chorus remains, beckoning as it recedes into the infinite unknown.
© Paul Serotsky 1998, 2006
* For this reason alone, I would suggest that Colin Matthews’s appendage of a “Pluto” movement – regardless of its own musical merits – is ill-considered, or even downright spurious. Before we know where we are, somebody else will be jumping onto the bandwagon with an “Asteroids” movement, on the grounds that they are the remnants of a (former) planet. [As at 2006] The discovery in 2005 of another “tenth planet” (2003 UB313) has intensified the debate, already re-opened by the earlier discovery of Sedna (2003 VB12), about what constitutes a “true” planet. This debate also casts doubt over Pluto’s claim to “planet-hood”. It’s not that I mind composers writing pieces “about” astronomical bodies, but I would be much happier if they kept their sticky fingers out of Holst’s astrologically-inspired work and, in particular, stop trying to sabotage its carefully calculated and brilliantly original conclusion.

© Paul Serotsky
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