Forgotify, the Last Frontier: “Neptune, the Mystic,” from Gustav Holst’s Suite The Planets

Convinced that Forgotify is trying to make me look like an opportunistic journalist, I regret to inform you that I actually performed this work less than three weeks ago. 

To prove my innocence, here is the link that Forgotify suggested: a 1990 recording of the piece, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Choir.

But because I have a touch of narcissism, listen to this version recorded a few weeks ago by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, of which I am a member.

The Planets is a 7-movement work written between 1914 and 1916 by esteemed composer Gustav Holst, born in 1874. This work became so immensely popular that Holst regretted its success, declaring that it had overshadowed some of his better work. He originally wrote the piece for two pianos, except for “Neptune” which was written for a single organ, but he eventually realized his grotesque error and re-wrote it for orchestra. The Planets enjoyed early public premieres in 1918 and 1919, but the first full public performance wasn’t until 1920, with the aforementioned London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus: previous performances had opted to end with “Uranus” or “Jupiter” and completely ignore the brilliant “Neptune” movement. Holst was disappointed with these decisions, telling his daughter that ending with a happier movement defied real life, saying, “In real life the end is not happy at all.” Way to be a downer, Holst.

The suite was influenced by astrology, not astronomy as many assume. Holst was an astrology enthusiast, offering to read his friends’ horoscopes. With that in mind, the so-called additions commissioned to complete the suite don’t make much sense in the context of the piece. In 1972, Leonard Bernstein conducted an improvised “Pluto” movement for a children’s concert, and in 2000 a composer named Colin Matthews was commissioned to write a “Pluto” movement to complete the suite. And then, in 2006, NASA ripped all our hearts out and took away Pluto’s planet status. There were some other attempts to write movements about asteroids, and in 2013 there was a piece titled “The Glittering Hosts of Heaven” by Eve de Castro-Robinson, a lovely piece which deserves to stand on its own.

“Neptune” was the first piece of music to utilize a true fade-out effect at the end of the piece. Instead of a simple decrescendo, performances usually involve the chorus (made up entirely of sopranos and altos) walking off stage and closing the door. I can vouch for this on a personal level — our final dress rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall had us up in the Gallery, not on the choral terrace, walking backwards down a hallway, watching our director, who was watching a monitor of the conductor, trying not to trip over the stage hand interns.

Thanks, Holst, you persnickety pain in the ass.

 

 

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