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HOLST Suite: The Planets

by Len Mullenger

The Planets is so well known that it does not often get included in programmes at Gramophone and Recorded Music Societies. Indeed, I once gave a programme on Holst where I deliberately did not play anything from this suite. It often needs the stimulus of a new recording or a live performance to afford a reappraisal of the work. This happened to me by purchasing a recording of The Warriors by Percy Grainger. The Planets was the fill-up (at least for me) but it is by far the most interesting work.

Holst came from a musical background and when only 17 was appointed organist and choirmaster to the village of Wyck Rissington and also conducted the choral society at Bourton on the Water. When he was 19, he left Cheltenham for the Royal College of Music where he started to suffer from neuritis in his right arm. This was problem that was to be with him for the rest of his life. When it was particularly bad he could not even hold a pen and resorted to tying a nib to his forefinger in order to continue composing. This meant that he had to give up any idea of being a concert pianist so he took up the trombone instead. After leaving college he became first trombone in the Carl Rosa Opera Company orchestra. It was around this time that he read Frazer's Silent Gods and Sun-Steeped Lands and learned of the ancient Hindu legends. He discovered the collection of sacred verses called the Rig Veda and wished to set it to music. In order to obtain a colloquial setting he taught himself Sanskrit so that he could make his own translation. In all, he translated over 30 hymns and odes which he set to music. He also composed two Hindu operas, Sita and Savitri. Holst earned virtually nothing from his compositions and continued with the Carl Rosa Opera until he obtained teaching posts becoming musical director at St Paul's Girls School, Hammersmith and at Morley College. This gave him the time he needed to compose. Holst's Sanskrit settings often use asymmetric metres; 5/4, 7/4, 21/8. When he became interested in traditional British folksongs he declared that these irregular metres were much more suitable for setting English words than the more usual time signatures.

Holst's stepmother had introduced him to theosophy (the eternal truths are to be found in the ancient cultures and religions) and this led him to an interest in astrology - which he later referred to as "my weakness". In 1913 he went on holiday to Mallorca with Henry Balfour Gardiner, Arnold Bax and his brother Clifford Bax. Clifford spent the entire holiday discussing astrology to the scorn of Gardiner but whetting the appetite of Holst. Holst also studied the writing of (the aptly named) astrologer, Alan Leo. Holst returned from holiday with a feeling of well-being and some optimism so was ready for the composition of a new work.

In 1914 he heard Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra which promoted cries of outrage in the audience but gave Holst the idea of writing a similar suite. Holst had also managed to hear Diaghilev presenting Firebird in 1912 and the following year Petrushka and the Rite of Spring. He was very impressed with Stravinsky's orchestration and rhythmic vigour and used his ballets as examples in his teaching. This then, was the background to The Planets suite which Holst completed in 1916.

He decided the order of the movements on musical criteria rather than astrological factors so they do not move in orbit outwards from the sun. The opening, Mars, must be one of the most familiar pieces of English music. This is battle music driven on by its assymetric repeated rhythm. It closely resembles the first movement of the Schoenberg and is surely influenced by the Rite of Spring. The second movement, Venus, is much quieter, again recalling the second movement of the Schoenberg (vergangenes - the past) which contrasts with its first; Vorgefuhle (Premonitions). Holst drew on his own song A vigil of Pentecost. Here Venus is not the Roman Goddess of fruitfulness, instead Holst based his inspiration on the work of Alan Leo: "Venus creates orderly harmonic motion .... everywhere it produces order out of disorder, harmony out of discord." So it is appropriate that Venus should follow Mars. Mercury, according to Leo, represents the personalities of its earthly lives. Unfortunately Holst had to suppress the programmatic basis of the Planets as Leo was prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act of 1917 which declared astrologers to be common thieves and vagabonds! The bustling activity at the opening of Jupiter strongly resembles the opening scene of Petrushka and then develops a distinctly Elgarian mood in the middle and was separately published as I Vow to thee my Country. Saturn is again based on a previous work, Dirge and Hymeneal. Dorothy Callard was a pupil of Holst and she recalls that Holst insisted that she visit Durham Cathedral where two bells were tolled before services. The sound of the bells were very like the alternating chords that open Saturn and the two bell ringers were two very old men in black gowns, very slow and solemn which gave Holst the association of Saturn with the bringer of old age. Furthermore, Holst as a child suffered very badly from asthma (learning to play the trombone was partly a way of overcoming this) and Saturn rising to its climax in a series of syncopated gasps vividly protrays the struggle for breath - as if each gasp might be the last. For Uranus we go back to Schoenberg's Peripetie from Five Pieces for Orchestra for its dominant brass but also, surely, to Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice for its hop-skippety rhythm. Holst was also writing The Perfect Fool and the opening of Uranus resembles the appearance of the Wizard in the Perfect Fool thus establishing the link with a magician. Finally, the shifting tone-clusters of Neptune again is drawn from Farben, the third of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra as well as being from his own Mystic Trumpeter. The use of a wordless female choir is an unusual device although Debussy had used this in Sirenes and Ravel in Daphnis and Chloe. But Holst now had plenty of experience writing for girls choirs so for him it could be regarded as natural. The striking invention was the gradual fadeout at the end although I learn he had tried this before in two earlier works that I am not familiar with: The Listening Angels and Songs for a Princess.

So although the Planets is regarded as Holst's masterwork and amazed its listeners with its originality, it was, as always, a natural evolution from what had gone before. It is unfortunate that for most people Holst, like Dukas, has remained a one-work composer. Over the last 20 years most of Holst's other works have become available on disc and have given me a great deal of pleasure. I recently played you Song of the Night for Violin and Orchestra and would urge you to hear its companion piece, Invocation. If I had to pick one alternative work of Holst's I would recommend Egdon Heath for its Hardyesque Englishness.

Further reading:

Vaughan Williams: Gustav Holst: An Essay and a note

Daniel Jaffe: Holst: The Planets Sunday Times

Michael Short: The making of the Planets British Music Society Journal 2 p22

Michael Short Gustav Holst,Oxford University Press, 1990

See also major Biography of Holst on this website

This article first appeared in ORMS NEWS, The newsletter of the Olton Recorded Music Society


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