Period: 20th Century
Known primarily for his popular orchestral composition, The Planets, Gustav Holst embraced a wide variety of musical models, from Arthur Sullivan, Edvard Grieg, and Wagner to the melodic simplicity of English folk music. In his maturity, he managed to merge these various influences into a rather sparse personal style that became increasingly transparent in his later years. Perhaps his greatest talent lay in the realm of choral music; his Hymn ofRead more Jesus stands as one of the finest works in the genre from the early twentieth century.
Holst's first instruction came from his father, Adolph, a piano teacher, who also made him take lessons on the violin and trombone; the father believed that these studies might alleviate the youth's asthma.
By age 12, the young Holst was composing, even dabbling in orchestration; in 1888, he won a prize in an amateur competition for his vocal work, A Christmas Carol. Thereafter he sang in the All Saints' Church choir and played violin and trombone in its orchestra. In 1892, he traveled to London and heard a Covent Garden performance of Götterdämmerung, led by Mahler. The experience opened up new compositional vistas for the young composer.
Holst entered the Royal College of Music the following year where he met fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams, who would remain a close lifelong friend. Shortly after his arrival in London, Holst found that the neuritis in his right arm, which had afflicted him in his early youth, had worsened and now caused him to abandon ideas of a career as a concert pianist. In 1898, Holst left the RCM to take a position in the Carl Rosa Opera Company as rehearsal pianist and coach. He completed his Cotswold Symphony in 1900, and its premiere in April 1902 was a success. On June 22, 1901, Holst married Emily Isobel Harrison, whom he had met in a choir he had directed a few years before.
In late 1903, Holst took on a teaching position at James Allen's Girls' School, in South London. The following year he acquired a second post, the directorship of music at St. Paul's Girls' School, which he would retain until his death. He added another teaching post at Morley College in 1907, bogging him down and leaving little time for composition. Still, the St. Paul's Suite, written during this period (1912-1913), is among his most often-performed works.
In 1914, Holst began work on what would become his most popular composition, The Planets. The war years were extremely productive, as the composer not only completed The Planets, but also wrote Hymn of Jesus. In spring 1918, Holst began educational work for the YMCA at its various facilities on European battlefields.
He returned to London at the end of June 1919 and took a prestigious post teaching theory and composition at the RCM in 1920. The composer's fame was not only growing domestically in the early 1920s but internationally as well, as works like the Hymn of Jesus were receiving regular and acclaimed performances. By 1924, Holst's health was clearly declining, and he thus lessened his workload.
Beginning in late December 1928, Holst made a series of trips abroad that included visits to France, Italy, Sicily, and the U.S. In Boston, a duodenal ulcer was diagnosed in 1932. On May 23, 1934, he underwent surgery for the ulcer, but died two days later. Read less
Work: The Planets
Holst: The Planets, op.32 - 1. Mars, the Bringer of War
Holst: The Planets, op.32 - 2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Holst: The Planets, op.32 - 3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Holst: The Planets, op.32 - 4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
Holst: The Planets, op.32 - 5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Holst: The Planets, op.32 - 6. Uranus, the Magician
Holst: The Planets, op.32 - 7. Neptune, the Mystic
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 onlyRead more
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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