“Music, being identical with heaven, isn’t a thing of momentary thrills, or even hourly ones. It’s a condition of eternity.” – Holst in a letter to W. G. Whitaker
When was it composed?
Holst wrote the seven movement suite between 1914 and 1916.
When was it premiered?
That’s a complicated question. Sir Adrian Boult had conducted it before a small invited audience of 250 on September 29, 1918 at the Queen’s Hall. Several other private or incomplete performances took place in London and Birmingham. Finally, on November 15, 1920 the complete work was performed for the first time publicly by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Albert Coates.
What instruments does Holst use?
4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons/6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, 1 euphonium/ strings, organ*, 2 harps*, celesta*, percussion
Three-part women’s chorus (Soprano I and II, Alto)
How long does it last?
The entire work lasts approximately 55 minutes.
A few things about The Planets.
- While on holiday in Majorca in 1913 Holst was introduced to astrology by Clifford Bax and became a serious devotee of the subject. He was intrigued not by the idea of prophesy in the stars but by how the planets influencing the human psyche. As with most things that he studied he became well-versed in the subject and often cast horoscopes for his friends.
- Holst used What is a Horoscope by Alan Leo, the father of modern astrology as his source for the subtitles of the movements.
- The working title of the piece was Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra thought to be inspired by a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra which Holst heard early in 1914. The imaginative orchestration shows the influence of his contemporaries Stravinsky as well as Schoenberg as well as echoes of Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov.
- As Holst based the piece on astrology he did not include Earth amongst his “planets”. In the practice Earth is the reference point so is not included in astrological mapping. Pluto is also missing as it was no discovered until 1930; it has recently been downgraded from “planet” to “dwarf planet”. In 2000 Kent Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra commissioned Colin Mathews to write an eighth movement, Pluto, the Renewer. Mathews dedicated it to Holst’s daughter Imogen.
- Holst was commissioned to set the words of Sir Cecil Spring Rice’s 1918 poem “I Vow to Thee, My Country”. He was under time constraints and declared himself “delighted” to find that the words fit the previously composed central theme from the “Jupiter” movement. It has since been used at patriotic rallies, royal weddings and funerals, remembrance observances and military tattoos.
- Holst was not entirely happy with the popularity of The Planets. He had never felt that it was one of his best creations and was disappointed that it took attention away from his other works. Though it brought him some wealth it gave him little joy and apparently he gave up astrology shortly after its success.
The Seven Planets
Mars, the Bringer of War
- Sir Adrian Boult observed that primarily Holst wanted to show the stupidity of war. In a remorseless allegro Holst hammers away at long phrases broken by martial fanfares. There is a feeling of the eternal menace and horror of war broken by the parade ground of an empty glory. The movement closes with the relentless beat of heavy brass and percussion, there is no end to the wars that Mars brings.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
- In contrast to the jarring sounds of Mars Venus arrives as a coolly serene theme by solo horn answered by a gentle sequence for flutes and oboes. A more human touch is added by an extended passage for the violin which gives way to the shimmer of flutes, harp and celeste. The movement ends with a motive that sounds like sparkling fountains or an infinity of stars.
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
- The quickest and shortest movement the solo violin scurries about in an unstable scherzo with nervously changing meters and harmonies. Mercury is a figure in a hurry, he is there one minute but disappears in a flash.
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
- The most “English” of the seven movements it shows the influence of folk music on Holst. After rollicking dances the violins break in with a stately piece which sounds Elgarian in its elegance; it was to take on a more jingoistic tone when Holst used it as a setting for “I Vow to Thee, My Country”. But it’s grandiloquence soon gives way to dance-like rhythms ending in a flashy coda.
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
- This was Holst’s favourite movement. Like Venus it is an adagio dominated by flutes and harps but there is little peace in its plodding tempo. An almost dirge-like march is introduced, gone is the brassy militarism of Mars. The glockenspiel marks the passage of time with a depressed relentlessness but a theme from the trombones announces the advent of wisdom. The movement ends on a note of the serenity of the dying days of fall.
Uranus, the Magician
- A triple fanfare, first trumpets and trombones, then tubas, then the timpani, introduce the magician. What follows is a galumphing dance tune followed by a brassy march almost like a Music Hall magician unveiling his tricks. But as with all magic acts there is that final moment of mystery that builds to the grand finale. With a flash the magician vanishes into thin air.
Neptune, the Mystic
- Fragments of melody are woven in and out in varying harmonies. Holst marks the whole movement ‘sempre pp throughout’ and it is filled with the sound of shimmering harps and the celesta. Imperceptibly women’s voices emerge from the veil of orchestral sound which fades away leaving only their wordless song . But even that fades into the ether leaving the vast sound of silence.
Are there recordings or videos of The Planets?
- Amongst the first recordings were two by the London Symphony Orchestra under Holst himself. The first was recorded in bits and pieces in 1922-23; the second, a complete performance was recorded in 1926.
- Sir Adrian Boult, who conducted the world premiere, set down five performances with five different orchestras between 1945 and 1978.
- The popularity of the piece means that it has been recorded, often more than once, by all the major orchestras under some of the world’s best-known conductors. In 2017 Gramophone magazine published a guide to “a few of the finest accounts on record” of The Planets. It can be accessed here.
- The 1987 recording by Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) under Charles Dutroit is certainly one of the best on the market.