“As a rule I only study things
that suggest music to me….
Recently the character of
each planet suggested lots to
me, and I have been studying
astrology pretty closely…”
—Holst, in a 1914 letter to William
Whittaker, giving the first clue about
what would become
The Planets
feb 14, 15
Program Notes
ince time immemorial, man has looked upon the
heavens with a sense of awe, wonder, imagination
and mystery. It was inevitable that interpretations
of outer space would find their way into artistic
endeavors, including our music. Thus we find works such
as Hindemith’s
Harmony of the Universe
Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s space-travel opera
Music of the Spheres
, Alex Pauk’s
André Jolivet’s
and Gunther Schuller’s
Journey to the Stars
. The signs of the Zodiac have inspired
a symphony by Gian Francesco Malipiero, a symphonic
poem by Richard Rodney Bennett, a trio by William
Mathias and a choral work by Jean Absil. Individual
constellations and aspects of the moon have also been
depicted in countless songs and larger works.
singular and sensational:
a tribute to the solar system
Yet there is but a single musical tribute to our solar
system by a well-known composer, Holst’s
even that is incomplete. Holst omitted Earth, and Pluto
had not yet been discovered when he was writing, though
in retrospect he may have taken the right course: Pluto
was downsized to a “dwarf planet” in 2006. This has not
prevented other composers, including Colin Matthews,
Thomas Oboe Lee, Margaret Brouwer and Richard
Burdick, from “finishing” Holst’s
with their
renditions of “Pluto.”
The Planets
occupied Holst from 1914
to 1917. Its unveiling is a story in itself. A private
performance was given in 1918, as a “gift” from a
wealthy friend of the composer; in 1919 came a public
performance led by Adrian Boult, who, however,
conducted only five of the seven movements. The first
complete performance, on November 15, 1920, was
Gustav Holst
September 21, 1874, Cheltenham
May 25, 1934, London
The Planets
, Suite for Large Orchestra, Opus 32
conducted by Albert Coates—and it caused such a
sensation that two major orchestras competed for the
privilege of giving the American premiere. Both were
accorded the honor on the same evening, December
31, 1920: Frederick Stock conducted in Chicago, Albert
Coates in New York.
Such is the originality, imagination and sensationalism
of this music that audiences have been looking ever since
into Holst’s catalogue for more works of this nature—in
vain. Atypical as it may be,
The Planets
remains by far
Holst’s most popular work.
the movements
Holst claimed that the individual titles of his
“were suggested by the astrological significance of the
planets; there is no program music,” he wrote; “neither
have they any connection with the deities of classical
has come to represent the brutish, unfeeling,
inhuman nature of mechanized warfare, sounding
“unpleasant and terrifying,” as Holst put it. The relentless
pounding set up in the opening bars carries through the
entire movement. For this music Holst chose an unusual
time signature, 5/4, which creates its own opportunities
for musical warfare, and various smaller patterns (3 + 2;
2 + 3; 5 x 2) do battle with it. But nothing really suits the
unflinching regularity of this irregular meter.
The antidote to the cruel, terrible oppression of
Mars is Venus, in music of soothing melodic contours,
predictable rhythmic patterns and pastel colors.
Calmness and serenity pervade the music, which rises
just once, briefly, to
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