Gustav Holst, born in England in 1874, rubbed elbows and made friends with some of the greatest artists and thinkers of his day and place, including Ralph Vaughn Williams, George Bernard Shaw, the Rev. Conrad Noel, Balfour Gardiner, and the Bax brothers Clifford and Arnold. Clifford Bax (largely forgotten now, but at the time a popular and cutting-edge author) introduced Holst to astrology in 1913, a hobby the composer would continue to practice for the rest of his life, and one which was the driving force behind the Planets Suite.
The Planets Suite is a seven-part symphonic work, with each planet given a single movement (Earth is not present, and Pluto was not yet discovered in 1916). The work draws on multiple influences, many of which are present in most of Holst’s work: English folk tunes and hymns, atypical time signatures, and groundbreaking use of volume are all major features of the Planets. The planets are treated as astrological beings, not astronomical ones, and so the feel of each movement is dictated by the qualities and attributes each planet is said to contribute to a person’s horoscope.
The suite opens with a bang, with the movement “Mars: The Bringer Of War”:
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Sound familiar? That’s because John Williams totally stole it and used it in Star Wars for when the bad guys start marching around. No kidding. The unique 5/4 time makes the piece instantly recognizable, and Williams was as much paying tribute to Holst as ripping him off. I mean, where else will you find a quality piece of classical music about war in space?
The full listing of movements is as follows:
- Mars, the Bringer of War
- Venus, the Bringer of Peace
- Mercury, the Winged Messenger
- Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
- Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
- Uranus, the Magician
- Neptune, the Mystic
Mercury’s movement darts around, not quite as frantically as Rimsy-Korsakov’s The Bumblebee, but just as engagingly and with a fine scattering of tympani drums to balance out the light strings and flutes. Jupiter’s piece opens with a huge cymbal crash, and goes on to take its major melody from an old English hymn. Saturn conjures us a shuffling old man, using a repetitive two-note motif that persists through the swelling, gloomy strings section and the ringing handbells that always remind me of a funeral.
My favourite movement, however, is the last one, Neptune’s piece. In contrast to the bombastic orchestration used in several of the preceding sections. Neptune is full of odd bells and whistles, a mournful chorus of oboes, and haunting women’s voices. The piece is one of the earliest in music to use a fade-out at its end instead of a crisp cutoff: in live performances of the suite, this was achieved by hiding the chorus of women in a room, separate from the audience, and slowly closing the door as they sang the last bars of the movement. I’ll be unprofessional here and copy this paragraph from Wikipedia, as it expresses the effect better than I could:
Holst stipulates that the women’s choruses are “to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed,” and that the final bar (scored for choruses alone) is “to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.” Although commonplace today, the effect bewitched audiences in the era before widespread recorded sound—after the initial 1918 run-through, Holst’s daughter Imogen (in addition to watching the charwomen dancing in the aisles during “Jupiter”) remarked that the ending was “unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women’s voices growing fainter and fainter… until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence.”
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I first encountered the Planets Suite in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth – Bowie, aliens, yadda yadda yadda. Once I’d listened to all the movements, I began to hear its influence everywhere. And it is everywhere: Holst’s techniques helped create modern music. There’s a long list of artists who have either sampled or outright played selections from the Planets Suite live or on studio albums, including King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Bowie (of course), Yes, and someone called the Black Dyke Mills Band, who I should probably see live one of these days. And, yes, everything John Williams has ever written.
Check it out! It’s out of copyright, as it’s nearly a hundred years old. There are more versions than you can shake a stick at; it’s been adapted for organ, brass band, drum corps, even the Moog. Go listen and see how much you recognize. I guarantee you it’s more than you think.
And now for the poll: What’s your favourite piece of classical music?