Eric Paetkau, music director
From the Bringer of War to the Winged Messenger, the Magician to the Mystic, Gustav Holst’s The Planets reshaped how we’d hear and experience music in the 20th century.
This monumental work explores the outer reaches of the orchestral sounds, and gives the audience a chance for a musical journey into our universe.
Maestro Eric Paetkau has paired The Planets with Canadian Heather Schmidt’s Lunar Reflections, a work that celebrates the beauty of the other celestial orbs.
Mars, the Bringer of War – Holst
Blue Moon – Schmidt*
Venus, the Bringer of Peace – Holst
Pink Moon – Schmidt*
Mercury, the Winged Messenger – Holst
Wolf Moon – Schmidt*
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity – Holst
Snow Moon – Schmidt*
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age – Holst
Thunder Moon – Schmidt*
Uranus, the Magician – Holst
Neptune, the Mystic – Holst
*denotes Canadian composer
Holst provided this note: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no programme music, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it be used in the broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also the more ceremonial type of rejoicing associated with religions or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment. Mercury is the symbol of mind.”
Mars, the Bringer of War The association of Mars and war goes back as far as history records. The planet’s satellites are Phobos (fear) and Deimos (terror), and its astrological symbol combines shield and spear. Holst’s Mars is a fierce, remorseless allegro. The British conductor Sir Adrian Boult recalled that the aspect of war Holst most wanted to express was its stupidity.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace After the moon, Venus is the brightest object in our night sky. The identification with Ishtar, Aphrodite’s Babylonian predecessor, goes back to at least 3000 BCE. In The Principles and Practices of Astrology, Noel Tyl tells us that, to astrologers, “when the disorder of Mars is past, Venus restores peace and harmony.” Horn and flutes answer each other in this adagio. High violins have an extended song, but the dominant colors are the cool ones of flutes, harps, and celesta.
Mercury, the Winged Messenger Hermes, god of cattle, sheep, and vegetation, deity of dreams, and conductor of the dead, first assumes the role of messenger in the Odyssey. Mercury, his Roman counterpart, was primarily a god of merchandise and merchants, and his winged sandals and winged cap are taken over from Hermes. To astrologers, Mercury is “the thinker.” The composer makes this a virtuosic scherzo, unstable, nervously changeable in meter and harmony—in a word, mercurial.
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity The most massive of the planets, possessing twelve satellites (one of them larger than the planet Mercury), named for the light‑bringer, the rain‑god, the god of thunderbolts, of the grape and the tasting of the new wine, of oaths, treaties, and contracts, and from whom we take the word “jovial.” “Jupiter,” says Noel Tyl, “symbolizes expansiveness, scope of enthusiasm, knowledge, honor, and opportunity . . . [and] corresponds to fortune, inheritance, bonanza.” Holst gives us an unmistakably English Jupiter. In 1921 Holst took the big tune in the middle and set to it as a unison song with orchestra the words, “I vow to thee, my country.”
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age Saturn is the outermost of the planets known in ancient times. The god is associated with Cronus and traditionally portrayed as an old man. To quote Tyl again, Saturn is “man’s time on earth, his ambition, his strategic delay, his wisdom toward fulfillment, his disappointments and frustrations.” Another adagio dominated by the sound of flutes and harps, like Venus in both characteristics, but static, full of the suggestion of bells, and serene at the last. This movement was Holst’s favorite.
Uranus, the Magician The first planet discovered in the age of the telescope, specifically in 1781 by Sir William Herschel, who wanted to name it for George III. In astrology, Uranus rules invention, innovation, and astrology itself. Holst begins with a triple invocation (trumpets and trombones, then tubas, then timpani) and leads that way into a movement of galumphing dance. At the end, the apparitions disappear into the night.
Neptune, the Mystic Pluto was discovered in 1930, so when Holst wrote his suite, Neptune, discovered in 1846, was the extreme point in our system. In 2006 the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of its status as a planet and consigned it to a new category, dwarf planet; and although the composer Colin Matthews created a Pluto movement in 2000 as an addition to Holst’s original, Holst apparently had things right all along.
In astrology, Neptune means confusion and mystic rapport with other worlds. Neptune is invisible to the naked eye, and to Holst it speaks of distance, mystery, unanswerable questions. He makes of it another slow movement in swaying, irregular meter, softly dissonant in harmony, full of the sound of shimmering harps and celesta, and dissolving in the voices of an invisible chorus of women.