Holst: The Planets, Op. 32


Lakeview Orchestra will perform Holst’s The Planets, Op. 32 on Tuesday, November 13th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Despite his dauntingly Teutonic name, Holst was an Englishman through and through. Born in Cheltenham, Holst moved to attend school in London, where he went on to live the rest of his life. Holst’s biographical sketch can be outlined with shocking ease: He was a small, frail, shortsighted, asthmatic child who had to abandon his ambition to be a professional pianist due to inflammation in his right arm. Instead, Holst enrolled as a composition student of Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music. Later in life, Stanford remembered Holst as “hardworking but not at all brilliant.” Upon graduation in 1903, Holst took a teaching job at the James Allen Girls School in Dulwich, a high-end suburb in south London. Two years later, he took the position of music director of St. Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith (west London), a position he held for the rest of his life.

In many ways, Holst’s musical career serves as an inspiration to all those good people who just never find the time to finish their creative projects outside their 9-to-5 jobs. Holst’s teaching schedule forced him to become an after-hours warrior for his own work, composing little by little, day by day, in the evenings, weekends, and vacation month of August. Akin to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s 6 o’clock “Magic Hour” (a regimented schedule of libations after a busy day of queening), Holst kicked backed at the end of the day by gradually progressing on his current compositional work. This exacting schedule served him well as his catalog came to include 8 operas, 4 ballets, 200 vocal and chorus works, and more than 50 chamber and orchestral pieces, including the cherished and hallowed The Planets, Op. 32, by far his most popular work.

The instant and widespread success of The Planets always baffled and bemused Holst. His daughter, Imogen Clare Holst, wrote, “Holst never considered The Planets his best work. Its success bewildered him. He used to say that every artist ought to pray not to be a success. He said, ‘If nobody likes your work, you are in no danger of letting the public make you repeat yourself.’ But [after The Planets], he had achieved the position rare for an Englishman, of being a really popular composer. It was a position that he would gladly have avoided. When audiences rose to their feet with tumultuous applause he gazed at them in blank dismay. He dreaded having to go to parties where he was surrounded by gushing admirers. Press photographers found him unhelpful, and he remained tongue-tied when faced with reporters wanting a story for their columns.”

As The Planets is about astrological signs and not astronomical verisimilitude, Holst did not write a movement for Earth or the Sun. He also did not write a movement for Pluto, which is understandable given that Pluto was not discovered until 1930 – that is, 14 years after Holst completed The Planets. Pluto’s discovery did not trouble Holst at all. It did, however, bother Kent Nagano of the Hallé Orchestra, who commissioned Colin Matthews to write a movement for Pluto that was appended to The Planets in a bit of compositional revisionism. You will hear this addition tonight.

Mars, the Bringer of War

As the title suggests, this movement is about the destructive nature of Mars himself. The movement hammers a fearsome, relentlessly jagged 5/4 rhythm with long, baleful phrases contrasted against glittering martial fanfares, thus epitomizing the “horror” and the “glory” of war. British conductor Sir Adrian Boult recalled, “I well remember [Holst] saying the he wanted the stupidity of war to stand out.” As the gods were created in our own image, this vicious, fierce, remorseless, militant music becomes a metaphor for humanity’s own darkest side, the Darth Vader that lurks somewhere within all of us.

Mars, the planet: For decades, the Red Planet has been the next logical human exploration frontier beyond the moon. Temperatures range from -225°F to a comfortable 60°F. Tourists would enjoy surface gravity only 37% that of Earth, along with the largest canyon system in the solar system (the Valles Marineris, approximately nine times longer than the Grand Canyon), and the largest volcanic mountain in the solar system (Olympus Mons, roughly 2.5 times higher than Mount Everest). Climate conditions can be unpredictable as Mars has the largest dust storms in the solar system – dust storms that can last for months and cover the entire planet.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace

The opening of Venus is more notable for its sheer sensuality of sound than any particular melodic content. A sound world of a soft, hazy glow is engendered by rich, sustained, and repeated harmonies accompanied with gentle smears of timbral color and delicate orchestral pastels through the use of winds, horns, harp, and strings. The sound world projected by the movement leads to a solo in the violin, which represents Venus herself. The violin introduces a shimmering, atmospheric melody that serves as the melodic theme of the movement.

Venus, the planet: Venus is the nearest thing to a “planet from hell” that our solar system has. If one were to visit, they would find that Venus rotates “backwards” – very slowly – so that the Sun would appear to rise in the west and set in the east. In addition, a day on Venus is a little longer than its year, so the sun rises two times during each year even though it is still the same day. Aside from this rather confusing calendar, the climate doesn’t fare much better: Venus has an average surface temperature of 900°F, a barometric pressure 92 times that of Earth (equivalent to the pressure 3,000 feet underwater), and sporadic showers of sulfuric acid.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger

Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, is associated with quickness and speed: his darting, hummingbird-like movements, his swiftness of mind, and his adaptability to situations. This movement is wonderfully characterized by rising and falling perpetual motion melody lines. Of particular interest in Holst’s orchestration is the manner in which he distributes his fleeting melody lines between different instruments, dovetailing one into the next, to really brilliant effect. Fleeting, buzzing, playful, and vibrantly coloristic, this music is a superb personification of Mercury himself, presented in the guise of a symphonic scherzo – in a word, mercurial.

Mercury, the planet: Due to its very thin, almost non-existent atmosphere, Mercury has the widest surface temperature range of all the planets. A tourist on Mercury who was directly facing the Sun would experience temperatures around 800°F. But after a short hike to the cratered poles of the planet, they would find the temperatures drop considerably, to around -300°F.  Mercury likes to keep it simple, having no moons, no real atmosphere, no substantial tectonics, and no particularly interesting geological features.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

Jupiter is organized around three themes that are presented in the first half of the piece, and then freely varied in the second half. The opening theme is an energized fanfare-like theme that will sweep away the blues as surely as a winning lottery ticket. Theme two, which begins immediately without transition, is a bold and strutting country dance, heard in a series of ever-changing orchestral permutations. A brief transition leads to theme three, a majestic, gorgeous, hymn-like song of thanksgiving.

In terms of sheer mass, numbers of measures, number of notes, degree of thematic contrast and range of moods, Jupiter is the biggest movement of the planets – entirely appropriate given Jupiter’s status as the physically largest planet in our solar system. With its gaggle of memorable themes and upbeat mood, it is also the most human, most feel-good movement of The Planets.

Jupiter, the planet: Jupiter is 2.5 times more massive than all the other planets collectively. If Jupiter somehow became more massive, it would actually become smaller, since additional mass would pull the planet further in on itself, thus making it denser. At just 9 hours and 55 minutes, Jupiter has the shortest day of all the planets. This rapid rotation flattens the planet slightly and helps generate Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, which is 19 times more powerful than Earth’s. Known for its beautiful whirling clouds and storms (including the Great Red Spot), Jupiter’s clouds are only about 30 miles thick compared to its 88,000-mile diameter.

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age

The mood that Holst felt was implied by the subtitle Bringer of Old Age was one of desolation, followed by an acceptance of the human tragedy. In this context, the human tragedy is our unfortunate ability to conceptualize, and thus anticipate, our own deaths. Here Holst portrays the slow but inexorable march of time, culminating with the end of our human time here on Earth. This is made abundantly clear by the movement’s reference to the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass, which describes Judgment Day. This movement was actually Holst’s favorite movement. He commented that, “Saturn not only brings physical decay but also a vision of fulfillment.” For Holst, the natural progression of the human condition was perfectly described not only by the slow fading of the body, but also by a resigned serenity – a type of peaceful maturity that can only be experienced in old age.

Saturn, the planet: Saturn spins so fast that it is about 10% out of round. This speed makes for an interior spin at a different rate than its cloud deck, giving it the fastest winds of all the planets, which travel at speeds up to 1,500 miles per hour. Although the surface temperature is very cold, Saturn actually gives off more than twice as much heat as it receives from the Sun. In fact, Saturn’s core is about 21,150°F, more than three times as hot as the surface of the Sun. Saturn’s most notable feature is its rings, which are very large and wide, yet also very thin, with a thickness about the length of a football field.

Uranus, the Magician

While this movement’s subtitle, the Magician, might be taken to imply the world of the occult, Holst’s frankly comic movement steers more towards the bumbling student wizardry of Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or perhaps that of Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, Harry Potter’s second year Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Holst begins with a triple invocation (trumpets and trombones, then tubas, then timpani) and leads that way into a movement of galumphing, manic dance, which eventually fades into the blackness of space.

Uranus, the planet: Discovered in 1781 by William Herschel, the planet was almost named “Georgium Sidus” after Britain’s King George III. Due to a collision about four billion years ago, Uranus actually rotates on its side. Although Uranus is the third most massive planet, its density is so low that you would weigh 11% less than on Earth. A methane haze on the upper level of the atmosphere hides 550 mph storms in the cloud decks below.

Neptune, the Mystic

Neptune is the most impressionistic of the movements. Lacking any traditional harmonic progressions or thematic melodies, this is music that sounds as remote as the planet Neptune itself, which was, without a doubt, Holst’s intention. Here, physical distance from Earth becomes musical distance from tradition. Devoid of traditional harmonic motion, Neptune floats and twinkles until Holst plays his final compositional card: a wordless chorus of female voices in an adjacent room.

Neptune, the planet: Neptune was the first planet to be mathematically predicted. Its gravitational pull on Uranus led to its hypothesis two decades before it was discovered in 1846. Neptune has many similar characteristics to Uranus, but it is much farther out. The farthest planet from the Sun, it takes 165 Earth years to complete one revolution.

The Planets’ popularity lies within its expressive punch. Dramatic power lies on its surface and can be understood viscerally after but a single hearing. The Planets is direct. It makes its expressive points with a minimum of guile and artifice. Immediacy and directness: This is what The Planets is all about, and that is what Gustav Holst, the man, was all about as well. His daughter Imogen wrote, “Directness of expression was Holst’s chief characteristic in his life and in his music. He aimed at clear thinking and clear feeling, and he took it for granted that [his audience] would be just as objective and as free from self-consciousness.”

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Holst’s The Planets on November 13th, 2018: Learn More or Get Tickets

Program notes by Luke Smith.

Luke Smith