Gustav Holst’s The Planets

Here is another piece I was introduced to in high school. If you attend enough marching band competitions, chances are sooner or later you will hear an arrangement of “Mars”, “Venus”, and “Jupiter” from English composer Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The actual piece has seven sections; one for each planet excluding Earth and Pluto (which had not been discovered at the time, and as it turns out is not a planet anyways). Each planet is assigned an astrological character.

Mars: The Bringer of War- Heavy, dark, and ominous, Holst’s first section starts his suite of on an intense note with a booming cadence and blaring brass section. A steady march tempo is kept in the bass instruments throughout. I don’t speak Japanese so I don’t know who or where this is, but watch how the string players create a percussive effect at the beginning by drumming their bows against the strings. (I’ll post these videos until You Tube has them removed.) 

Venus: The Bringer of Peace- Holst immediately sets a new tone with “Venus”. The section is gentle and lilting with beautiful melodies being sung by the french horn, violin, and oboe. I couldn’t find any Japanese Orchestras performing this, but here is the Philadelphia Orchestra with the great Eugene Ormandy in 1975.  

Mercury: The Winged Messenger- Mercury is lively, light, and uptempo. This piece calls to mind small birds flitting from tree to tree. Notice the way the melody is passed from instrument to instrument, like news being passed along a chain. Back to Japan for this one. 

Jupiter: the Bringer of Jollity- Jupiter is lighthearted yet majestic. The section has a few distinctive parts: a lively dance, a solemn march, and a slow, triumphant melody. As Jupiter is the largest of the planets this movement is the largest, most full of life of the suite. One theory of why Holst placed the planets in this particular order suggests that Jupiter is the centerpiece of the suite. The other sections compliment each other as opposites of one another (Mercury and Saturn, Venus and Uranus, Mars and Neptune). 

Saturn: the Bringer of Old Age- Saturn is slow and contemplative. This section seems patient; the opposite of Mercury’s light quickness, but relentless and unstoppable. The end is more restful, like falling asleep at the end of the day.  

Uranus: the Magician- Uranus is harsh and sinister at times. If Uranus is a magician, he seems untrustworthy; like his magic is nothing more than cheap tricks. 

Neptune: The Mystic- This movement is gently ethereal. It’s still, like bobbing in an ocean with no frame of reference whether you are coming or going. Holst finishes his suite by fading the music out; something that had never been heard at the time. Holst placed a women’s choir in an adjacent room off the stage. At the end of the piece the door to the room was slowly closed until the women’s voices were lost in silence. This version cuts out a little to quick for the effect to be truly appreciated. 

Holst finished writing this piece in 1916. It was not performed until September 29th, 1918 at very short notice. The Queen’s Hall Orchestra saw the score for the first time just two hours before performing it under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult. The performance was attended by about 250 invited guests. The first full public performance did not take place for another two years in November of 1920. It was played by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Albert Coates.

While many regard this as Gustav Holst’s masterpiece, Holst himself became disillusioned with the piece later in life, feeling that it overshadowed his other works. But regardless of how Holst came to feel about it, The Planets has had more than its share of influence in the musical world. It can be obviously felt in John Williams’s score for Star Wars. It has been arranged for marching bands, brass bands, piano duets, drum and bugle corps, and rock bands. The melody from “Jupiter” has been used for a number of hymns, a Japanese pop song, and “World in Union”, the theme of the Rugby World Cup. Holst was a great musician with a long list of compositions to his name, but whether he intended it to be or not, this piece is his legacy.

This entry was posted in 1900-1950, English, Gustav Holst, Performance and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gustav Holst’s The Planets

  1. mark keyse says:

    Not only can you hear this as an influence for Star Wars, but I also hear similar themes in the Back to the Future trilogy.

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