The Sunday Section: Music - The Planets

I cannot remember the first time I heard ‘The Planets’ by Gustav Holst, and then it was only one of the planets. It was only recently that I took the time to listen to all of it. While I do enjoy listening to the whole piece, there are two that are my absolute favourites. Before I go into that, here’s a small introduction to the composer.

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Gustav Theodore Holst was born in September 1874, in Cheltenham. His mother, Clara Cox, was of British descent; his father, Adolph von Holst, a professional musician, had Swedish, Latvian and German ancestry. It was probably expected that Gustav would become a musician as there had been at least one in the previous three generations of his father’s family.

Gustav initially wanted to become a pianist but, unfortunately, he suffered from neuritis in his right arm. Neuritis refers to nerve inflammation; symptoms include pain, weakness, numbness and paralysis. Studying at the Royal College of Music, he concentrated instead on a career as a composer despite his father’s reservations. To supplement what he managed to earn as a composer, he played the trombone professionally, and would later become a teacher. He served as a music director at Morley College, London, from 1907 to 1924. He taught at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, West London, from 1905 until his death in 1934; while there, he pioneered music education for women.

Although his works were played frequently, it was only with the international success of ‘The Planets’ soon after the First World War that he became well-known. But he did not enjoy fame for he was a shy man who wanted to be left in peace to compose and teach.

The Planets’, a seven-movement orchestral suite, was composed between 1914 and 1916. Holst was introduced to astrology by the writer, Clifford Bax, while they were holidaying in Majorca in 1913. He was so taken with the subject, he used it as inspiration while composing. The reason Earth is not included is because he based the work on astrology, not astronomy. Each movement, representing a planet, has nothing to do with the Roman deities, which, until recently, was my mistaken belief. Instead, it conveys the ideas and emotions related to the effect that each planet has on the psyche. While composing, Holst had to hand ‘What is a Horoscope?’ by the British astrologer, Alan Leo, which he also used for the subtitles for the movements.

The seven movements are 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; and Neptune, the Mystic.

The suite was completed in 1916 but, apart from private or incomplete performances, it was only heard for the first time in full in November 1920 at a public performance by the London Symphony Orchestra in London.

Although, according to his daughter, Imogen, Holst “hated incomplete performances of The Planets”, I have only linked to my favourites – Mars and Jupiter. As a little side note, I learnt earlier in the week why Mars, especially, reminds me of Star Wars; it was one of the pieces John Williams, who celebrated his 85th birthday on February 8th, listened to when composing the music for Star Wars, specifically the Imperial March.