Musical Selection: The Planets
Composer: Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Biographical and Historical Information
Holst was one of Great Britain’s most prolific and remarkable composers. His interests ranged from composing music for military bands to orchestrating English folk music and writing Hindu religious hymns for the Rig Veda (Hindu text.) He was born in 1874. He appeared to have had a very difficult childhood due to severe asthma and other family issues. He was so sickly as a child that he was often unable to walk up the stairs to his room without assistance or breaks. Not surprisingly, he grew up very much a loner and acquired religious and mystic sensitivities. He studied Hinduism extensively and eventually translated the Rig Veda from Sanskrit into English. He also set the texts to music. Later, he studied Greek in order to set the early Christian texts to music. The choral work "Hymn to Jesus” was the result of this focus. Holst’s Hindu/Indian interests led him to study astrology and from this fascination "The Planets” evolved. Gilman summarizes, "He was a gifted artist, a gifted teacher; a man of flexible and capacious imagination, a wit, a poet, a mystic. He was on familiar terms with the cosmos.” (Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York, The Concert Companion)
Holst’s "The Planets” is a marvelously diverse piece of descriptive orchestral music. The work evolved from Holst’s religious and mystical involvement with Hindu literature and cosmology, as well as Greek literature. The suite is composed of seven movements or parts that describe the composer’s astrological interpretations of the planets. The work was composed for a very large orchestra. In addition to the usual string sections, it was structured to include a choir and a variety of percussion, woodwind, and brass instruments. The force of this large orchestration becomes clear in the first piece, "Mars, the Bringer of War.” This dark, marching, violent musical portrait is matched in the end by a beautiful and mystical interpretation of Neptune, which concludes peacefully with a six-part chorus. The order of the music below is the order of his composition.
I. Mars, The Bringer of War
This movement begins with a faint distant march that quickly builds into a powerful description of martial tension, human conflict, and destruction. This is a very powerful section that students should have no difficulty experiencing or interpreting. Note that Mars as a planet has a reddish color, which was seen in ancient times as the color of war or fire. This music can be used to illustrate the personality of the Greek god Ares (renamed Mars by the Romans.) Ares was tall and handsome, but vain and cruel. He cared not for right or wrong, but for the battle.
II. Venus, The Bringer of Peace
The violence of the first piece is quickly replaced with a musical painting of peace. No contrast could be greater. This section brings to my mind a naturalistic setting, complete with a flowing stream, meadow, and forest. Note that Venus, while in truth a very inhospitable planet, has a bluish color in the evening sky. This section could also be used to illustrate the beauty of the Greek goddess Aphrodite (or as the Romans preferred, Venus.) She was the goddess of love that mysteriously emerged out of the sea.
III. Mercury, The Winged Messenger
This section takes off like the wind, which is appropriate since Mercury races around the sun at 108,000 miles per hour. (A Mercurial year is only 88 Earth days long.) The music easily brings to mind the quickness and agility of sparrows in fight. Similarly, the Roman god Mercury was perceived as a fast messenger.
IV. Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity
This movement begins with a lively expansive fanfare that quickly evolves into a mature, majestic portrait of our solar system’s largest planet. Jupiter is eleven times the size of Earth. Jupiter’s year is equal to twelve Earth years. The Roman god Jupiter was the mighty Greek god Zeus. He was recognized by both cultures as a god of Thunder-the mightiest of all the Olympian gods. Zeus maintained his leadership over the Universe through a number of battles, vaporizing his challengers with lightening bolts. Holst seems to be emphasizing the expansive, powerful, and joyous components of this cosmological entity.
V. Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age
This was Holst’s favorite movement. It has an air of refinement and aloof eloquence. The movement builds slowly, giving the sense of a slow but awesome emergence of the distant planet on, perhaps, the horizon of one of its many moons. (Saturn, at last count, had 62 moons.) Holst, however, was more concerned with his astrological interpretation of Saturn as the "bringer of old age.”
VI. Uranus, The Magician
With this movement, useful references to the Greek and Roman pantheons cease. Holst’s Uranus may be more like an old magician with "Aunt Clara’s” a la Bewitched, competence and style or like the sorcerer or the apprentice in Disney’s interpretation of "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia. Critics observed that the melody was tossed about all over the place, with every section of the orchestra having a say.
VII. Neptune, The Mystic
As the Roman god Neptune (the Greek god Poseidon) guarded the depths, Holst’s Neptune guards the outer regions of the solar system. This planet is approximately three billion miles from the Sun. The music is very subtle, eerie, and mysterious. The celeste, flute, and harps play a major role in the musical image of a lonely wise man. The movement concludes with a double chorus that fades into infinity.
1. Music-Appreciation: The students can match the planet with the music. Encouraging or guiding them in taking notes describing the music and arrangements will shorten their learning curve. They can also speculate regarding the composer’s intentions and his success in the compositions.
2. Music-Writing: Descriptive paragraphs represent an opportunity to integrate language arts with the music. Also, multi-paragraph essays comparing and contrasting various planets.
3. Music-Science: This music could easily enhance any study of our Solar System
4. Music-Art: Artistic responses to the music would also augment student appreciation of the music.