Holst’s The Planets

Of all the great music composed in England during the past hundred years, few works have been either so popular or as enduring as Gustav Holst’s The Planets, yet with the exception of an important composition for strings, the St. Paul’s Suite, Holst’s music has vanished from the orchestral repertoire. How could this be? A composer with so much imagination and technical mastery must have written more than one major orchestral work, surely?

Well, yes and no. A great talent and a great spirit, Gustav Holst worked appallingly hard for all of his adolescence and the first twenty years of his adult life in the effort to make ends meet while he learnt how to compose as he wished. The scion of a family of professional musicians whose vocation went back for generations, Holst intended to be a concert pianist as his father had been before him, but severe nerve damage from a combination of practicing too much and semi-starvation left him permanently disabled. In 1893 Holst was accepted as a student at the Royal College of Music and nearly starved until he won an open scholarship in composition in 1895. Over the next few years Holst taught himself the trombone, in the rather naive hope that he could earn a living — to his delight, he did, becoming a trombonist in the Carl Rosa Opera Company and in the Scottish Orchestra. In 1903 Holst was offered a teaching position in the James Allen Girls’ School and gave up the trombone; two years later he became the Music Director of St. Paul’s Girls’ School as well; in 1907 he became Music Director at Morley College, holding all three positions until 1920. He learnt to compose in his spare time, slowly gaining experience and technical skill. His music began to make an impression in the London concert-halls, though much of his work was for chorus and orchestra, which rather limited its likelihood of performance on a regular basis. At about this time Holst acquired a close friend in Ralph Vaughan Williams and a patron for special events in H. Balfour Gardiner.

Holst’s increasing powers as a composer were reflected in the progression of works that occupied every moment of his spare time from 1905 to the onset of the First World War. A Somerset Rhapsody of 1910 marked the beginning of his real maturity, followed by the first group of hymns from the Rig Veda, and Beni Mora in 1912 and the Cloud Messenger in 1913. The Planets (1914-1916) and the Hymn of Jesus (1920) represented Holst at the very peak of his career.

Sadly, after that peak, there was a sharp falling away. Holst, searching for a new economy in his writing, began to pare his work down; deleting all unnecessary notes, he found a new austerity in his art that exactly captured within its reticulations all that he wished to express. His new music was intellectually rigorous, icily aloof, brilliantly executed. For the next ten years Holst devoted himself to writing in this new style, though audiences actively disliked it. The last years of his life were marked by a return to his warmer earlier style, but ill health interrupted his plans. His works from 1920 on are only rarely played to the present day. They are simply too forbidding.

As a composer, Gustav Holst was both a dreamer and a pragmatist. The inspirations for his compositions were often intuitive, even peculiar at first glance, yet somehow he always managed to make them work. His idea for The Planets came from a casual curiosity about astrology which simply grew. In 1914 he wrote, “As a rule I only study things that suggest music to me, that’s why I worried at Sanskrit (for the ‘Rig Veda’ hymns). Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.”

Holst completed the first movement, Mars, in the summer of 1914 (coincidental, yet appropriate), Venus and Jupiter in the autumn, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune during 1915, and Mercury in 1916, the orchestration following apace. Written for a huge orchestra (with chorus), The Planets is nonetheless a work of great subtlety and elegance, even in its most ferocious moments.  The work was first played at a private performance in September 1918 by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra as a special gift to the composer by Balfour Gardiner. The first public performance took place on February 27th, 1919, to the beginnings of great acclaim.

The seven movements really require little in the way of explanation. The first, Mars, the Bringer of War, opens with a real sense of menace and soon builds to a frenzy of martial ferocity. The second movement, Venus, the Bringer of Peace, commences in a mood of cool serenity, into which a human warmth begins to obtrude. Mercury, the Winged Messenger, is in the form of an especially fleet scherzo with a wonderfully evocative trio. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, is arguably the best known and the most popular of all of the Planets, from its rollicking opening to its Elgarian central section. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, was Holst’s personal favourite among the seven movements — the combination of suffering and menace creating an unforgettable effect. Uranus, the Magician, occupies the same ground as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the first Nachtmusik from Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. A brilliantly grotesque dance, wonderfully orchestrated, the movement ends with a sudden stillness which suggests the unwinking stillness of the night sky. The last movement, Neptune, the Mystic, though very quiet could well be the real core of the whole work. Uncanny, unforgettable, Neptune offers perhaps Holst’s personal glimpse into the infinite.

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