By Daniel Sheridan, Musicologist
Why The Planets?
Ask anyone with any familiarity with the name of the English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) to identify one of his works and odds are they will invariably respond with The Planets. Despite producing such other worthy compositions as (but not limited to) Egdon Heath, the Choral Fantasia and Hammersmith, it is through The Planets that Holst’s name most endures. This is not the first time that an artist has been typecast by a signature work, nor will it be the last. The question remains: why The Planets, specifically? What is it about this work that has made it such a mainstay of the symphonic repertoire? Why does it continue to appeal to audiences?
The obvious answer lies in the suite’s consistent tunefulness and evocative orchestrations, marked contrasts to what is normally associated with 20th century music, namely the increasing adoption of unconventional sounds and structures that characterized the work of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern, for example. The sounds of these composers’ works were doubtlessly bracing to audiences accustomed to a steady diet of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. But it would be tremendously unfair to The Planets to reduce its enduring popularity to that of a mere life raft of conventionality in the 20th century’s ever-expanding sea of experimental provocations. For The Planets displays an individual style, its originalities coated with a veneer of the familiar, allowing it a broad appeal while maintaining a distinctiveness of vision that separates it from lesser compositions; audiences recognize both and as such, continue to reward it with justified enthusiasm.
There can be little doubt that the opening movement Mars, the Bringer of War has left the largest cultural footprint. It is easily the most recognizable (and recognized) segment of the work, if only due to its rhythmic vitality and the prominence of martial brass. Mars also stands out because it immediately encapsulates within a single piece many of the qualities that make the entire suite engrossing. It is a dramatic execution of Holst’s overall vision for the work, namely a musical evocation of the astrological character of the various planets. Mars sets out to convey through music not any particular conflict (it has been frequently noted that it was significantly sketched out before outbreak of World War I in 1914) but an emotional and psychological portrait of war in general. Certainly, the pounding percussion and aforementioned brass lend it an appropriately militaristic edge. But Holst’s creativity goes even further than that: the rhythmic pattern that propels the piece consists of five beats instead of the more customary four. This kind of rhythmic irregularity was an increasing feature of 20th-century music in general, but in Mars the asymmetrical metre takes on even greater significance. The music feels imbalanced, with an ominous melody in the low brass layered over top. With great economy, Holst portrays war as an irrational and unstable force. The middle section, with its slowly winding chords cultivates an atmosphere of ever-present unease, bordering on dread, building up to an explosive return of the original music. The violent percussion in the final bars, along with the dissonant, clashing harmonies of the brass amount to a scream of anguished terror. On the veritable eve of the declaration of hostilities, Holst forgoes pomp and pageantry in favour of fear, ferocity, and pain. It is perhaps in part for that reason, as the world’s cultures have endured numerous devastating conflicts over the years that Mars endures.
The Planets builds much of its reputation upon its scoring for a very large orchestra. Indeed, instrumental effects are inseparable from melodic and harmonic content in terms of accounting for the suite’s impact. Holst does not simply use his formidable ensemble to overwhelm audiences with bombast. Like such other acknowledged masters of orchestration as Berlioz, Mahler, Strauss and Ravel, Holst exploits the expanded orchestra for its diversity of instrumental sound colours. For The Planets, orchestral groupings and effects are key to the task of characterizing the suite’s various astrological figures. Venus, the Bringer of Peace contrasts the intensity of Mars with serene textures dominated by woodwinds, horns and strings. The usage of the celesta and harps create an otherworldly, ethereal effect, as though peace and tranquility were slightly untouchable, not quite of this earth, desired but just out of reach. Mercury, the Winged Messenger is a particularly delightful display of Holst’s command of tone colour, rapidly passing his melodic figures between low and high winds and strings. The celesta reappears to different effect than in Venus. Holst’s instrumentation shows a lightness of touch that draws out the feeling of fleetness connoted by one who takes flight and delights in doing so. A similar effect occurs at the beginning of Uranus, the Magician where the presentation of low winds in an upbeat, lilting rhythm suggests a mischievousness characteristic of a conjurer and performer of sleight-of-hand. The Planets is replete with any number of further instances of orchestral sounds being used to convey moods, emotions and ideas. Audiences will be continually rewarded for paying close attention to what instruments are playing and what combinations they are in and what kinds of images they conjure up as it pertains to the planets.
The initial passages of the fourth movement Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity lives up to the title with its vigour and overall upbeat mood. But midway through the movement, a pronounced shift occurs as the prevailing jovial atmosphere gives way to a slower, statelier theme, as if the youthful exuberance of the earlier music were replaced by a newfound maturity and wisdom. There is a nobility to the melody while at the same time coming off as pastoral and folk-like. As such, there is something decidedly English about the music. Indeed, in 1921 Holst adapted the melody for a setting for Sir Cecil Spring Rice’s patriotic poem I Vow to Thee, My Country and again for the choral hymn tune Thaxted, named after the English village where he resided for several years. Holst biographer Michael Short likens the segment to the Nimrod movement of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations (going so far as to posit it as a tribute to Elgar, a composer Holst held in high esteem), further underlining the piece’s English-ness. That The Planets finds time amongst its astrological excursions to pay tribute to the homeland adds some “earthbound” charm that accounts for some of the work’s continuing allure for audiences.
The Sonic Expanse
To re-iterate, the movements of The Planets were intended to evoke astrology, not astronomy. Nevertheless, to modern ears, several passages nicely tap into our popular imaginations about the qualities of outer space. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, one of the strongest movements in the suite, deals with the process of aging, creating moods connoting anxiety, despair, fear, resignation and eventually acceptance. But the repeated pair of chords played by the winds at the beginning, which will become a motive that drives the entire movement, provide a sense of chilly inscrutability, its sense of musical stasis suggesting the dislocation of the outer reaches of the solar system, far away and indifferent to our conceptions of time. The harsh brass, churning strings and clanging bells that occur later on would then seem to express the dread of that unknown, while the gentle harps and strings that close out the piece take a more romanticized view of the ineffability of the cosmos. The final movement, Neptune, the Mystic takes some of these concepts even further. The shifting instrumental tone colours, the off-kilter rhythm and the slippery, almost indeterminate melodic material create a sense of otherworldliness and remoteness. This is compounded by one of the suite’s most evocative sonic effects: the introduction of a wordless women’s chorus. The lack of bass voices and the offstage placement would seem to give voice to the unearthly wonder of space’s vastness. The multiple repetitions of the final bar with the chorus gradually fading into nothingness suggests nothing less than a receding into the infinite. Given the powerful hold that outer space continues to maintain on the culture’s imagination as manifested in both real-world space exploration and science-fiction alike, it stands to reason that a piece of music that manages to continually speak to that enduring fascination, regardless of Holst’s original astrological intent, through its skillful use of instrumental and vocal effects would have little trouble attracting continued interest. That Holst’s creativity infused the work with such eclecticism of material while remaining accessible is all the better.