The English composer Gustav Holst completed his most famous work, The Planets, about 15 years before Pluto was discovered. The piece was inspired by astrology, not astronomy (though he wasn't eager to reveal his main influences because the most famous astrologer in Britain, Alan Leo, had been prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act of 1917, which declared all astrologers, palmists, clairvoyants and mediums "common thieves and vagabonds.")
By the time Pluto was discovered, Holst was so over the success of the piece, which seriously dwarfed the rest of his works, the composer decided against adding an 8th movement, refusing to write a Pluto.
As we know now, this turned out to be a good thing. The one and only 7-movement piece (there was never an Earth movement) is about 50 minutes long when played in its entirety. I'll recommend some of the better recordings at the end of the post, but let's first look at each planet.
1. Mars, the Bringer of War
2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
The second movement, Venus, is much quieter. Here Venus is not the Roman Goddess of fruitfulness, instead Holst based his inspiration on the work of Leo, who once wrote: "Venus creates orderly harmonic motion .... everywhere it produces order out of disorder, harmony out of discord." Listen for the beautifully peaceful opening French horn solo, before the rest of the woodwinds enter.
3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Leo used to call Mercury the "thinker." Also, in his book How to Judge a Nativity, he writes that the planet is "the Winged Messenger," which is what Holst went with for his subtitle. Leo also describes the planet in a way that aptly describes the orchestration of the movement. "Mercury ... represents the silver thread of memory, upon which are strung the beads which represent the personalities of its earth lives". Listen for the "silver thread" as depicted by the use of the glockenspiel and celesta toward the end of the excerpt I've chosen.
4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
The opening of this upbeat movement borrows again from Stravinsky, this time another ballet, Petrushka. Leo described Jupiter as "the Uplifter" signifying "happiness and abundance" and "expansion." Listen for that in the excerpt I've selected, which comes right at the beginning of the movement.
5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
The great majority of this movement is quiet, slightly lugubrious, and slow. It's meant to portray the slow onslaught of old age. But about five minutes into the 10-minute movement, the brass start to rise up out of the muck in a minute-long crescendo that seems to suggest a rejection of sorts. It's as if the mighty brass section is revolting, refusing to grow old with the rest of the instruments. Again, you'll hear some passages that Williams borrowed in one of the Star Wars flicks. It's all quite dramatic.
6. Uranus, the Magician
For some reason, classical composers usually associate magic with jazzy, syncopated rhythms. Berlioz' "Witches Sabbath," the final movement in his Symphonie Fantastique, and Dukas' symphonic poem, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, come to mind, and were probably in Holst's mind when he sat down to write Uranus. The movement is about 6 minutes long. I've selected an excerpt that, because of the way Holst orchestrated it with all the tambourine, has always reminded me of Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade. See what you think.
7. Neptune, the Mystic
The eight-minute long last movement is perhaps the most celestial of all. As usual, Holst's depiction of Neptune doesn't match the traditional view of the storm-bringing god of the sea. But unlike the others, so influenced by Leo's writing, Neptune seems more about the planet orbiting slowly on the edge of outer darkness, at least to me. The music is quiet and mysterious. Holst uses a choir toward the end that's reminiscent of Debussy and Ravel, only this all-female choir fades out into space, nothingness - perhaps the first musical fade-out in history. The selection I've chosen is before the choir comes in, pretty much in the middle of the movement.
All the excerpts you hear in this post come from my favorite recording of this work, a Decca issue made by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. But there are others I own or have heard that can also be recommended. Herbert von Karajan's later version (the digital one) with the Berlin Philharmonic is great, as is John Eliot Gardiner's recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra. People tell me that James Levine's version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is very lush and romantic, very on the sleeve, for those who prefer that kind of an approach. I heard a bit of it on iTunes and agreed. Go check them all out and pick the one you like best because this is a must own for any music lover.
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