1874 – 1934
The Planets, 1918
Following three generations of professional musicians in the Holst family, Gustav, born in Cheltenham, England, seemed destined to follow a musical career. His father was a professional organist, choirmaster, and piano teacher, and his mother was a talented singer and pianist. Both spotted their son’s musicality early, and quickly provided him with studies in piano, violin, and then trombone to help improve an asthmatic condition. Although his preferred instrument was piano, overall poor health (asthma, bad eyesight, neuritis in one arm) eliminated his wish to become a professional pianist. Despite this problem, Gustav entered the Royal College of Music on a compositional scholarship and, upon completion, played professional trombone before concentrating on composition and full-time teaching jobs. His compositional repertoire totaled 200 works, including ballet, operas, choral hymns, and songs for a variety of instruments. However, while on a conducting job, Holst fell off the podium and suffered a brain concussion, and other health problems ensued. Heart problems and an unsuccessful ulcer operation resulted in his death at age 60.
Said the British musician, “I study only things which suggest music to me,” so a fervent interest in astrology and the “casting” of horoscopes caused him to begin The Planets, which took 2 years to complete (1914-1916). This became a one hour suite of seven tone poems, which Holst prefaced with, “I have purposely not included program notes. This music has no connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. The writing of a phrase following each title provides a hint of what is to come. To me, that is sufficient.” Well, such didn’t appear so, judging by the reams of descriptive material this writer has located.
The pieces fall into two stylistic types of music, ranging from lively, brash, rhythmic movements to those of quiet meditations of a timeless nature. The first, Mars, opens in martial war-like fashion stated by brass and percussion, and perhaps portraying a world of cold, implacable brutality (think 1914-1918). Venus evokes a gentler mood with a solo horn answered by delicate flutes, harp, woodwinds, and solo violin. The calm, tranquil reverie casts off any thought of conflict. Winged-messenger Mercury brings a mood of capriciousness that never settles down. The music darts from instrument to instrument, although preferring the fairy-bell-like celesta, short woodwind sounds, and violins. Jupiter is the most English – with sounds of a merry-making folk festival and a hymn-like middle section by strings. Saturn is suggestive of the ceaseless progression of time, with a tolling bell amidst an uncertain beginning, struggles of maturing years, and finally, the emergence of peace and wisdom in later years. Uranus may remind listeners of the magic conjured up by The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, featuring a bassoon depicting pranks with a galloping march. The bassoon also makes some mysterious-sounding incantations before appearing to be consumed by flames. The suite concludes with mystical Neptune. By a women’s wordless chorus, the music is suggestive of an atmosphere of both outer and inner space. In the final bars, the orchestra falls silent and the voices echo until they fade into space.
Notes researched & written by Joan Olsson
Steven Errante, conductor
Unless indicated, all program notes are researched and written by Dr. Steven Errante.