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Classical Archives: Behind Holst – The Planets

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In our Classical Archives series, Bronwyn Riseley looks at composer Gustav Holst’s 1914-16 orchestral suite The Planets

By Bronwyn Riseley

The Planets, Op. 32: I. Mars, the Bringer of War
This composition may seem familiar if you’ve watched films such as Star Wars or Gladiator (we’ll call it heavy inspiration), but this is the origin of what we know today as the default soundtrack for war and battle in the film industry. Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite lacks even the slightest notion of compromise, and it is this pandemonium atmosphere that evokes brimming imagery of animosity and bloodshed. Holst uses the classic combination of heavy percussion alongside abundant brass, tied together with exuberant strings to create an unapologetic amplification which builds up steadily as the composition progresses. Furthermore, the mechanical elements in this piece derive from the 5/4 time signature. This works well with Holst’s use of oscillating chromatic scales and unpredictable harmonization, and constructs a monumental march that is inhuman, senseless and terrifying. Holst invents the sound of an enemy that is incomprehensible to any listener.


The Planets, Op. 32: II. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Juxtaposed with the harsh and disturbing mode of Mars, the Bringer of War, Holst introduces his next piece, which reflects on a new beginning; one that is full of hope and transcendental restoration. The charm of soft brass, contrasted with rich strings, illustrates connotations we tend to associate with sunrise, ascending from a broad yet tranquil setting suggesting promise for a refreshing future. In addition, the constant fluctuations between piano and forte dynamics, as well as thick and thin textures, epitomize a development of self-reflection and emphasize extensive human emotion, which is balanced flawlessly between calm optimism and echoes of melancholy drifts. Holst is also clearly determined in his composition to attract interest whilst preserving the theme of peace, constantly alternating between a major and minor key which results as both beautiful and thought provoking. He leaves the listener with a blissful ending and depicts a pleasant picture with the inclusion of a buoyant glockenspiel – something we may now associate with the classic “happily ever after” in a Disney film.


The Planets, Op. 32: III. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
With the constant use of staccatos, ornaments and allegro, Holst wholeheartedly embodies the mythological attributes of Mercury within this composition. He uses consistent switches between thick and thin textures again in this piece, which tend to exhibit imagery of a chase versus hiding. Additionally, Holst’s inclusion of accelerating, ascending scales, alongside fleeting strings, illustrates a mischievous prance and pattering from one area to another, perhaps being Holst’s representation of the Roman god Mercury; engaged in travelling and the “keeper of boundaries” between the lower and upper worlds. Moreover, it may be indicated within the listener’s imagination during the vast crescendos and increased use of instruments during the middle of the piece, the possible growth of commerce and money which Mercury is also associated with in mythology. All in all, the composition presents a playful impulse and childish spirit which is enjoyable yet chaotic for its audience.


The Planets, Op. 32: IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
At the centre of Holst’s suite, just like Jupiter being the central leader with associations to Zeus, is the magnificent composition which uses tremendous energy and fiery strength to depict the narrative of a victorious adventure. Holst uses forte percussions and affirmative melodies to manifest a sense of pride and praise towards the conquering individual – the hero that is owed every form of gratitude from their infinite and deserved crowd. The supremacy of this triumph is explored throughout many sections of the piece where the main musical theme is maintained, but the different variations of this nationalistic theme may propose the numerous aspects of victory. After all, what could verify Holst’s powerful and patriotic tone more than having a hymn based on his middle section? Composed after the Great War, the famous hymn ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ originates from Holst’s Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity itself. As always, Holst has yet again produced an incredibly influential piece of music that is valued by the nation, to the extent where he defines the glorious and compelling aesthetic our country attempts to embody.


The Planets, Op. 32: V. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Exuding an extremely sinister and disturbing atmosphere, this may be Holst’s most impactful composition throughout The Planets with regards to how it may trouble and perplex the listener. This piece absorbs and articulates the burdens of anxiety, paranoia and death. Holst uses off-putting chord sequences layered with a dooming and beckoning bass to construct a sound that in itself is decomposing, whilst perpetuating connotations linked to a ghostly and spiritual darkness that both welcomes and rejects evil. The god Saturn in mythology is commonly associated with the theme of time, and, in many ways, Holst presents this in a negative light whilst allowing aspects of old wisdom to filter through the use of insightful brass. However, the second part of the composition depicts an extraordinarily different tone that builds up slowly after the climactic peak of torment and despair. Many of the same instruments return, such as the harp and bell, but where these components were previously used to characterize imagery like the graveyard, it is now used to symbolise comfort, liberation and release.


The Planets, Op. 32: VI. Uranus, the Magician
It is extremely hard to listen to this composition without inevitability unfolding the imagery of wizardry and magic in its most flamboyant form. With influxes of tambourine percussions, staccato melodies and steady rhythms made up through authoritative double bass, Holst is keen to allegorise the magical figure under the spotlight full of wonders and tricks. Not only this, but the kind of spells the listener experiences are not adhered to just one sort; we are able to observe the modest, the shocking and the magnificent varieties of sorcery. Furthermore, the enchantment that revels within the conjuring of these tricks is not too far from the familiar sound of the circus. Holst does not present the magician as either wholly good or bad, and therefore leaves a sense of distance between the audience and showman, just as one may associate with the reality of the stage. We are merely left impressed; purely spectators of the wildly bewitching performance we are given.


The Planets, Op. 32: VII. Neptune, the Mystic
In order to create something entirely mysterious yet strangely exotic, Holst focuses on the absences of traditional musical elements rather than the inclusion of them. Here there are no definite melodies; only the wavering of harmonies and experimentations with layering that the listener cannot fully grasp or make sense of. The piece does embody certain feminine qualities regarding the vocals used, but this is certainly not a composition that can be connected to any particular human attributes. The listener is no longer given sections, themes or uniformity to aid any kind of understanding of the music; we are left looking for something that cannot be found and therefore abandoned with an endless spirit of curiosity. However, we are left on a pause that corresponds to the G note held for twelve bars – sung entirely anonymously. This suspension evolves into a foreboding fantasy, echoing a mermaid-like apparition. Their unnerving singing lacks words and therefore we again lack any knowledge as to what this piece of music aims to offer us. Holst managed to fabricate a sound that remains utterly untranslatable yet eternally alluring and strikingly magnetic.


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Bronwyn Riseley

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