Work: The Planets
About This Work
Vaughan Williams once described The Planets (1914-1916), by Gustav Holst, as "the perfect equilibrium" of the mystic and the melodic sides of the composer's nature. Shortly before its composition, Holst told a friend, "As a rule I only
study things that suggest music to me...Recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me." Typically known as a miniaturist, Holst expanded his reputation when he wrote this work of symphonic proportions for an impossibly large orchestra. Containing seven tone poems, the composition, which is comparable in size to those by Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg, has become known as his biggest and most important work. Accustomed to composing only for special purposes, Holst luxuriously allowed himself everything he wanted in this work.
The Planets was composed while Holst was employed as music master at a school in Dulwich and at St. Paul's Girls' School. It was the first and only work of its kind that he produced; between 1900-1914 he had written mainly choral pieces. Under the influence of Wagner, Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, the French composers, and additional Russians, Holst started to sketch No. 1: "Mars, The Bringer of War" just as the first World War began. Insistent on the stupidity of war, with all its horrors, the composer opened The Planets with this movement of relentless and brutal power. The entire work bears the feel of vulgarity, pleasantly accompanied by the richness and emotional warmth of humanity.
With the exception of Earth, each planet in our solar system has its own movement in Holst's composition. "Mars" opens the work in a broad ABA form, each section rising to a climax, concluding with a crashing unison of the entire orchestra. "Venus" follows, dissipating the brutality of the first movement, by peacefully presenting several figures and closing with a rich and calm amplification of its opening. "Mercury," which is in two keys in nearly every bar, leaves an impression of winged lightness and speed by rapidly swinging between chords. In "Jupiter" the composer sought to embody the radiant happiness of a person who enjoys life, in an ABACABA form. "Saturn" beautifully and peacefully brings old age, in a march that penetrates unlike any other work by the composer. Although Holst did not hear Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice prior to composing "Uranus," the two have remarkable similarities, particularly in the use of staccato bassoons. It is one of his supreme tuttis. This atmospheric composition closes with the delicately scored "Neptune." Meant to be a tuneless, expressionless, and shapeless pianissimo movement, the piece fades away to a close with a memorable wordless six-part female chorus.
The first complete public performance was conducted by Albert Coates on November 15, 1920. Prior to that, Adrian Boult led a semi-private rehearsal at the Queen's Hall Orchestra in 1918. The work is also available in an excellent version for two pianos.
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