Gustav Holst
Born September 21, 1874, in Cheltenham, England, United Kingdom
Died May 25, 1934, in London, England, United Kingdom
4 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tenor tuba, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, organ, strings, women’s chorus
Performance time
16 minutes
September 29, 1918, in London, England
Last Performed by the TSO
October 23, 2016

In 1913, while on holiday in Spain with his benefactor Balfour Gardiner, Gustav Holst became intrigued by a discussion of astrology and subsequently invested his time in its study. A fascination with the astrological signs inspired his first unequivocal success—The Planets—a seven-movement work for large orchestra. The premiere was given to a private audience sponsored by Gardiner; several other partial performances were given before its first complete public performance in 1920.

“Mars, the Bringer of War,” was the first of the seven to be composed in 1914. The sonic violence of “Mars” is a hostile premonition of the looming Great War and discordant strikes of the orchestra and competing battle-calls of the brass are now prescient. Many have compared the opening jaggedrhythm (five beats per bar) played with the wood of the bows to the sound of mechanized warfare.

The terror now past, a lone horn entreats “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.” Solos in woodwinds and violin enter at ease and pass. Harps, glockenspiel, and celeste suggest an angelic world and sparing orchestration throughout suggests that peace is both internal and external.

Composed last, the scherzo “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” exemplifies Holst’s skill at composing in bitonality, two keys at once. Repeatedly intoned notes of unequal duration in violin and glockenspiel can be likened to morse code. In addition to evoking a moto perpetuo, a sense of unsettled speed is made by switching between bars divided in three and two beats each.

Where “Mercury” brough youthful exuberance, “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” brings a joy that is at times light and at others boisterous. The more noble middle section—used as the melody for “I Vow to Thee, My Country”—connotes a type of joy that is more the result of pride and honor.

Jupiter’s final outburst gives way to the stark reality of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age.” Starting slow and quiet, low flutes and harps mutter a deliberately ticking clock. The ensuing chorales from trombones and strings build for time only to return to flutes and low strings reminding one of the everpresent passing of time. After a more climactic build, time suddenly speeds up with repeated strikes of bells, horns, and high strings. Grotesque chords and harsher tones subside. The clockticks, now in the two harps, are now tender. Contentment and resignation are sewn together and find resolution.

The four-note theme pervading “Uranus, the Magician” conveys strangeness as much as it does mischief. Not unlike Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, what begins as a stable dance becomes frenetic and wild until, after a moment of calm, a final shrill cry leaves one in a quiet disbelief.

The sparsely-orchestrated opening of “Neptune, the Mystic” equally establishes the world’s unfathomable distance as it does the unknowable nature of its existence. Never bursting forth audibly, “Neptune” remains consistently subtle and understated. Dark and ominous harmonies alternate with beautiful, if clashing, chords. Voices gradually pull the listener away from the comfort of tonality as the music in E-major is progressively permutated tone by tone, until the final two chords—which are repeated until inaudible—are incapable of sounding familiar.

Sean Bresemann