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Gustav Holst is probably a composer of whom you have heard of before, but dont necessarily have a very clear picture of his overall oeuvre. His family was originally of Swedish origin (then called von Holst) who migrated to England in the mid-19th Century. Gustav was then born in Cheltenham in 1874, but had somewhat of a miserable childhood due to being oversensitive, having weak eyesight and suffering from asthma, not to mention neuritis in his hands which hindered his want of learning to play the piano. It was not until the late 1890s that he, after various temp jobs at playing the trombone (since piano playing proved impossible), managed to win an open scholarship at composition, and this was soon followed by his first opera, The Revoke, though it was never publically performed. It was at the same time he also got attracted by exotic religions such as the Hindi religion that resulted in numerous works bearing this stance and this in turn also got him interested in mysticism. In 1905 he was appointed as the Director of St.Pauls Girls School and later on as the Director of Morley College for Working Men and Women, making teaching a primary occupation alongside composition in his spare time. It was while so occupied that he began the composition of the one work that gave him lasting worldwide fame.
Holst had taken an interest in astrology as well and, encouraged by his friend Clifford Bax, the brother of composer Arnold Bax, engaged in the composition of a suite for two pianos (which he orchestrated to its present well-known condition shortly after), detailing the planets in our solar system (excepting Earth naturally and Pluto, which was not yet discovered). The ensuing work was begun in early 1914 and was finally finished in late 1916, receiving its first, private performance on September 29, 1918 under Adrian Boult and its first public performance on October 10, 1920 under Albert Coates to great acclaim. The composition of the work was likely also further influenced not only by his fondness of theosophy and astrology, but also by the book The Art of Synthesis by Alan Leo (detailing the astrological characteristics of the different planets) as well as the visits of composers Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky in England, whose works must have effected Holst in a way that shaped the language of The Planets. However, always being a frugal and modest man, he was quite taken aback by the sudden popularity of the work and never considered it very highly as a result. Particularly as the public seemed to be demanding more such music, his own growing liking of austere, economical and introverted styles did not find much resonance with people. Continuing as a teacher until the end of his life in 1934, he never again experienced a success like The Planets and still remains a composer whose overall repertoire remains elusive and generally unknown for but the most involved fan.
ANALYSIS MAGNIFIQUE DE SOLARIS
Entitled by the composer as being a series of mood pictures, the seven movements have all been entitled with telling subtitles that more or less describe the character and mythological bearing of each of the planets depicted.
I. Mars, The Bringer of War
The first movement is dedicated to Mars, a movement that many erranously see as a reflection on the First World War, though the actual composition of the piece was begun before the war had even started. Beginning with a low ostinato pattern in the low pizzicato strings and menacing brass with reverberating gong strikes, the movement takes off into a heavy march on the insisting Mars rhythm that has been emulated and used countless of times in films everywhere. The mood stays militaristic through and through, adding small fanfares here and there, while the horror of war keeps the mood grim and unyielding. After a huge decrescendo, there begins a whirling rising movement in low strings and snare drum that finally erupts into a very heavily beating ostinato on the familiar rhythm accompanied by stormy and oppressive brass, finally to reach a devastating halt of utter horror and fear in the brass, strings and organ, the movement concluding with a smashing coda to bring the dissonantly Stravinskian opening movement to a definite closure.
II. Venus, The Bringer of Peace
(Adagio Andante Tempo I)
As a reflection of the first movements horror-filled insistence, the second movement is one of utter calm and beauty. Beginning with a gentle French horn melody augmented by more off-beatly lulling woodwinds, the movement unfolds like a lyrical meditation to which the small addition of the glockenspiel brings an eerie sense of a magical lullaby. The strings offer a bit more more sorrowful ideas in their waltz-like swaying choreography, to which the warmth of the woodwind writing brings delicate counterpoint, and even some romantically seductive love writing. I particularly like the dreamy harp and glockenspiel elaborations near the conclusion of the movement for the added sense of magical calm.
III. Mercury, The Winged Messenger
The shortest of the movements, Mercury is a fleeting scherzo. Everything in the movement is translucent and fast as quicksilver. There is no definite melody to cling onto, rather the fastness of the movement and sudden jumps from one group of instruments to another brings it a sense of lightness. The second phrase (a kind of Trio) is more solid and impassioned, but doesnt differ too much from the overall demeanour of the movement. The movement ends as quickly and as quietly as it began, a quick moment in life that passes without much notice.
IV. Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity
(Allegro giocoso Andante maestoso Tempo I Lento maestoso Presto)
The most English and also the most episodic of the planets, Jupiter is possibly the most easily accessible movement in the suite. Beginning with an open-ended string figure and pompous brass, the opening music is very optimistic and good-natured. The following episode then moves in a more forwardly assertive fashion with long strides of confidence and happiness (with a tambourine adding to the festive clatter), only to halt for a moment for a pianissimo transition of the party music. What follows is a heartfelt and broadly noble melody for strings and short brass counterpoint, taken almost straight out of the world of Elgars Pomp and Circumstance marches, the very essence of English stateliness and grandeur, the centre point of the entire work (famously used for Princess Dianas wedding). The ensuing music is in essence a repetition of the preceding music, featuring only slight changes in orchestration and a slightly lighter feeling, finally bringing a small quotation of the broad melody back in similar fashion as in Sibelius Finlandia to conclude the movement in high spirits.
V. Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age
Again offering a counterpoint to the preceding movements tumultuous heartiness, comes Saturns austere and lonely sorrow. The movement begins with another ostinato in a tickingly swaying flute pattern, repeating and repeating without end, to which the strings rise and fall in a measured sense of quasi-atonality. The sense is almost of total resigned solitude, dejected and at times terrifyingly horrific in its austere meditation. It is like Death himself is creeping towards you with the inevitable passage of measured time, a funeral march in all but name. The terrifying moments of lifes passing grows to even more horrified lengths with tolling bells and oppressive brass, only to resolve into a lengthy lullaby-like fade away. Incidentally, this was the one single movement that Holst maintained was to his liking after the rest of the suite proved to be unsatisfactory to him.
VI. Uranus, The Magician
(Allegro Lento Largo)
The world of the scherzo returns again with Uranus, though this one is much more heavy and vulgar than Mercury. Beginning with a heavy brass introduction, the ensuing light music is very similar to the music found from Paul Dukas The Sorcerers Apprentice, being lightly bouncing, but still fairly heavily orchestrated. The more strident phrase that follows is more in the character of a march, that is however soon halted by a similar decrescendo as took place in Mars conclusion. This finally leads into a militaristically forward thrusting march melody, again echoing Mars, with heavy percussion (including timpani and clamouring xylophone) and retaining a fairly optimistic attitude with its insistence of more harmonic material than openly dissonant. The movement however closes in total silence and almost death-like defeat.
VII. Neptune, The Mystic
The closing movement is perhaps the most unconventional, opening with a lonely and mysterious woodwind melody of detached awe. The feeling evoked is one of total and eerie unknown that resides at the back corner of human consciousness and at the outer rims of the unexplored wastness of space. This detached feeling is further emphasised with the quiet rising of the sound of off-stage female choirs, echoing from the great unknown, and at the same time bringing a more harmonious sense of luminosity to the mysterious expanse. The movement ends in the most hauntingly effective way possible, with having the female voices alone quietly fade away unresolvedly into the great distance of unprobed space, far away into the unknown and past human awareness.
(VIII. Pluto, The Renewer (by Colin Matthews))
Now, with Pluto still undiscovered at the time Holst finished off his suite and with his, by 1930, changed perceptions of the worthiness of the music, The Planets was left missing the planet entirely. A correction to this came in 2000 as Kent Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra ordered a new movement from the English composer Colin Matthews to complete the cycle. The new eighth movement follows without break from Neptune and presents a very impressionistic and modernist follow up piece, filled with modern orchestral techniques of dissonance, glissandos and hardness. Personally Im not a big fan of this appendix for two reasons: one being that it doesnt sit as comfortably in with the language of the rest of the suite, being more like insubstantial orchestral colour than anything of substance and secondly in that it ruins the haunting sense of trepidation with the fading sound of a lone female chorus the original concluded with (not to mention destroying the careful architecture of having Jupiter as a centre point flanked by the other six planets on either side as mirror images of each other). The original conclusion is one that doesnt really benefit that much from anything added to its eerie silence and thus I would rather say that if you are looking for a recording of The Planets for the first time, then get one without Pluto, and only after that explore whether you would be interested in the followup piece. Ironically, of course, only six years later, Pluto has now been denoted from being a full-fledged planet to a dwarf-planet, making the entire additional movement totally moot anyways!
The Planets has proved to be incredibly successful and its popularity doesnt seem to be dimming. Therefore it is very easy to pick up any recording of this work in every price bracket and there are some jewels out there. One of my favourite modern versions comes from the bargain Apex label with a very well balanced performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Sir Andrew Davis conducting. The volume could be a bit higher as the warmth of the recording tends to make you strain your ears slightly when listening, but the performance itself is indeed very fine with a bitingly ferocious Mars (just listen to the rumbling of the organ), a very poetic Venus and a Neptune that is simply perfect. (Apex, 8573 89087 2)
Perhaps the ultimate classic recording of this work, Charles Dutoits Montreal Symphony version is one of absolute mastery. The organ pedals in Mars and Uranus really shake your room, while the more slower movements make for some magical listening, and the more exuberant Mercury and Jupiter come off with great aplomb. The recorded sound is natural and warm, and the performance is practically faultless, though ever so slightly distant. Still, a definite first recommendation. (Decca, 417 553-2)
Sir Adrian Boult has always been associated with The Planets ever since that first private premiere, and has consequently recorded the work numerous times. But it is perhaps his 1978 reading with the London Philharmonic that is the best of the bunch. Though not always that taught, it is a very powerful reading, generally preferring faster tempos that make Neptune in particular to come off quite interestingly. All in all, a recommendation all round and the EMI remastering for their Great Recordings of the Century series is impeccable. (EMI, 5 67749-2)
From Eloquence comes another surprise with Zubin Mehtas interpretation with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (originally a double-Decca release that also included Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra and Williams Star Wars Suite) providing a very good recording. Sound quality is very good, though not earth shattering, but Mars comes off terrifyingly, Venus very sweetly, Saturn almost incredibly all-enveloping, and Neptune with a nice sense of angelic warmth. Its no Dutoit, but makes for a solid recommendation from the super-cheap label. (Eloquence, 467 418-2)
From Roger Norrington (a notable conductor for period performances) and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra comes a surprisingly individual reading, definitely something not really expected of this conductor. Each movement has a lot of unique flavour such as a slowly menacing Mars, a hilarious Uranus, an ethereal Venus and swirlingly impressionistic Neptune makes for a wonderful disc and one of the strongest recommendations. (Hänssler Classic, 93.043)
On the bargain Naxos label there can be found a fairly good reading done by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones. On the whole this is a very satisfying recording with a ferocious Mars, jubilant Jupiter and atmospheric Saturn being particularly fine, though the opening of Uranus is too portentous and Neptune sounds distant but not mysterious. The disc also includes Pluto and presents an adequate performance, though I still dont really like it (its still slightly better than its original Hallé performance, though). Perhaps even more interesting on this disc is the premiere recording of one of Holsts earliest major works, The Mystic Trumpeter, with Claire Rutter acting as soprano soloist. It is a bit indebted to Wagner, but makes for an interesting addition to the catalogue. (Naxos, 8.555776)
Naxos also offers another interesting performance, namely the composers own he did in 1926 with the London Symphony Orchestra, regardless of the fact that he had by this stage basically disallowed the work. The recording of course is made with ancient technology, so dont expect fullsome or reverberant sound, but the remastering is very clean and distortion free with notable but not distracting hiss. The performance is notable for being much more clear cut and straight-laced than what you may be used to. Holst wasnt really a professional conductor, and there is a certain lack of technique, but this is offset by a distinct sense of nervous energy that transmits through the music very well. At no point does he descend into indulgence, but presents a soberly matter-of-fact reading, making for an interesting archival document if nothing more. (Naxos, 8.111048)
All in all, The Planets is a very enjoyable way to spend 60 minutes with its luxurious orchestrations, dramatic undertone and post-romanticist modernism that is both easy to approach, but still modern enough to not sound like a 19th Century pastiche. Indeed, the fact that Holst himself degraded the works popularity is truly ironic as this is the one work that has kept him in the memory of the larger populus without him descending as a footnote in the annals of music, and as a result it has also helped to highlight his other works when people are spurred to search deeper into this difficult and challenging composer. Regardless of the modern mutilation of the careful architecture of the original by appending a totally inappropriate and musically empty follow up in Pluto (basically comparable with the enterprising meddling of appending totally unconnected movements after Schuberts Unfinished Symphony in the late-1920s; other people messing with somebody elses work), the composition still retains its freshness and it still manages to entertain despite its massive popularity. Anybody wanting to get into classical music, The Planets is definitely one of the best places to begin.
Oh, and by the way, I do not agree with some pseudo-intellectual snobs assertions that all film music is derived from The Planets. That claim is absurd to the max and shows an innate lack of knowledge (like saying Mozart derived all of his stuff from Haydn and Gluck).
© berlioz, 2007
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 The Planets, Op.32 - Suite For Large Orchestra: Mars, The Bringer Of War: Allegro
2 The Planets, Op.32 - Suite For Large Orchestra: Venus, The Bringer Of Peace: Adagio - Andante - Tempo I
3 The Planets, Op.32 - Suite For Large Orchestra: Mercury, The Winged Messenger: Vivace
4 The Planets, Op.32 - Suite For Large Orchestra: Jupiter, The Bringer Of Jollity: Allegro Giocoso - Andante Maestoso - Tempo I - Lento Maestoso - Presto
5 The Planets, Op.32 - Suite For Large Orchestra: Saturn, The Bringer Of Old Age: Adagio - Andante
6 The Planets, Op.32 - Suite For Large Orchestra: Uranus, The Magician: Allegro - Lento - Largo
7 The Planets, Op.32 - Suite For Large Orchestra: Neptune, The Mystic: Andante - Allegretto
8 Egdon Heath, Op.47: Adagio - Poco Allegro - Andante Maestoso