Holst is one of the most beloved twentieth-century English composers and was a proponent of the Second English Renaissance. He is most known for his orchestral suite The Planets (1914–16), and for his oratorio, The Hymn of Jesus (1917). Christened Gustavus von Holst, he broke any ties with his German heritage before World War I.
Holst’s The Planets was inspired by his love of astrology. It is in seven “movements” – and here, we have to use the term a bit loosely. The movements are all part of the same work, but each is also self-contained – like a character sketch. These movements don’t depict the physical planets so much as their personalities, astrological and mythological attributes, and moods.
Holst explains: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them, 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 of each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it used in a broad sense.”
Holst opens the suite with Mars, the Bringer of War, started in 1914 and completed in 1916, just before the fighting broke out in WWI that August. (Holst did not work on or complete the movements in strict order.) Annotator Michael Steinberg notes, “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 symbol combines shield and spear.” Holst represents the power of Mars with relentlessly pounding rhythms grouped in fives beneath a melodic figure that undulates, swells, and descends without seeming to reach its goal.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace follows, composed at the same time as Jupiter, in the autumn of 1916. Venus is a bright point in our skies and has been associated in many cultures with the goddess of beauty and fertility since about 3,000 BCE. In his book The Planets: Their Signs and Aspects, Noel Jan Tyl explains that “when the disorder of Mars is past, Venus restores peace and harmony.” Holst uses a much thinner texture here, calling on the harp and celesta to create a light expansiveness that contrasts directly with Mars’ weight.
The third movement is Mercury, the Winged Messenger (1916). Mercury is traditionally the god of merchants, thieves, and travelers, and his Greek counterpart, Hermes, is also associated with shepherds, luck, and athletes. As the messenger of the gods, he is responsible for showing the dead the way to the underworld. Holst depicts Mercury with a light scherzo in compound meter, and gives it an unsettled feeling by placing accents on weak parts of the beat. This is the shortest movement.
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity depicts the largest planet in our solar system, named for the god of heaven. Steinberg notes that Jupiter is also known as “the light-bringer, the rain god, the god of thunderbolts, of the grape and the tasting of new wine, of oaths, treaties, and contracts, and [it is he] from whom we take the word ‘jovial.’” Holst’s writing in this movement sounds especially English, and it became the unmistakable favorite of audiences. In fact, Holst set the central theme to the words “I vow to thee, my country” in 1921.
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age is the fifth movement. For centuries, Saturn was the farthest planet in the solar system and was generally thought of as an old man. Tyl tells us that Saturn represents “man’s time on earth, his ambition, his strategic delay, his wisdom toward fulfillment, his disappointment and frustrations.” Holst remarked on several occasions that this was his favorite movement.
In 1781, after the invention of the telescope, Sir William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. In the astrological context, Uranus is associated with the powers of change, originality, and individuality, as well as with astrology. Holst’s Uranus, the Magician depicts an unpredictable and intelligent trickster, and was completed along with Saturn and Neptune in 1915.
The final movement is Neptune, the Mystic. Steinberg notes, “When Holst wrote his suite, Neptune, discovered in 1846, was the extreme point in our solar system.” Neptune, in mythology, has power over horses and the sea, while in astrology Neptune has more to do with mystery and distance and is given a strong connection to other worlds. Steinberg points out that “Neptune is invisible to the naked eye … At the end, the music dissolves in the voices of an invisible chorus of women.” This chorus sings without words, growing out of nothing and then disappearing. Holst uses long held tones in a soft dynamic with slow-moving melodic interjections (more atmospheric than concrete) to create a sense of endless space unfolding.
Earth is not represented in Holst’s Planets, nor is Pluto, which wasn’t considered a planet until 1930; Holst had little interest in going back to add a movement. Composer Colin Matthews took it upon himself to compose Pluto, the Renewer as an addendum to Holst’s suite, and it was performed regularly until Pluto’s demotion to the status of dwarf planet in 2006.
With or without Pluto, Holst’s Planets is a wonderfully colorful set of character pieces filled with vivid melodies and textures. The Planets calls for four flutes (two doubling piccolo and one also doubling alto flute), three oboes (one doubling bass oboe), English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tenor tuba, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, xylophone, orchestra bells, chimes, celesta, two harps, organ, strings, and (in Neptune) an offstage chorus of female voices.