7 Planets, as composed by Holst

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

Venus.jpgThe 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

mercury.jpgLeo 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

jupiter.jpgThe 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

saturn.jpgThe 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

uranus1.jpgFor 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

neptune.jpgThe 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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5 Legendary Keyboards (and the Songs They Made Famous)

[This post was originally published on August 4th, 2008]

These days, there's no distinguishing one keyboard from the next because all they really do is act as computer trigger devices. But in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the early 90s, keyboards and their manufacturers were known for signature sounds. Here are five of my favorites:

1. The Mellotron

Though not nearly as famous as the others on this little list, the Mellotron is perhaps the coolest keyboard ever invented. Like our modern-day keyboard controllers that trigger computer samples, the Mellotron was really nothing more than a sample trigger-er, too. But because it was invented in the early 60s, the samples were actual tape loops! By depressing a key, a keyboardist was putting a tape of, say, a choir, or a violin section into motion on that particular pitch. So each of the 35 keys had its own, distinct, 8-second tape loop ready to play in the belly of the keyboard. Mellotrons never really caught on, though, because they were a) always breaking down, and b) the tapes, just like cassette tapes, lost their edge over time. Imagine playing an 8-second cassette tape over and over in a loop for hours on end. Think about how quickly scratches and hiss would take over.

But it was and still is one of the most musical of all early keyboards. Its sound is unmistakable, heard here on the two very famous excerpts below.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" by the Beatles. (The opening flute quartet is classic Mellotron at its best.)

"Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues. (Those lush strings aren't real! Well, technically they are, but as sampled and played back on the Mellotron.)

Be sure to check out "And You and I" by Yes, as well as "The Rain Song" by Led Zeppelin for more great Mellotron.

2. The Hammond Organ

HammondB3.jpgOriginally intended for churches, the Hammond line of organs, invented by Laurens Hammond in 1934 and manufactured by his Hammond Organ Company, became very popular in the 60s and 70s with rock and blues bands, especially the Hammond B3, pictured here. Whether you know the Hammond or not, you definitely know its legendary sound. Check out the examples I've picked here and revel in that "a-ha moment."

"Amsterdam," by Coldplay "“ One of my favorite songs by Coldplay. Listen how the Hammond coming in under the piano just opens the whole song up and takes it to another level.

Ah, yes: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum. Can you imagine how different the song would feel if the chord progression and tune were plucked out on, say, a piano?

The Hammond completely defines this great Steve Winwood song, "Gimme Some Lovin":

3. The Minimoog

Minimoog.JPGA lot has been written about Bob Moog and his Moog Music empire. One cool fact, which often gets forgotten, is that the Minimoog is actually monophonic, which means it can only play one note at a time. You can't even play a simple C major chord on the Minimoog, let alone accompany yourself with the left hand plucking out a bass line on the lower part of the 44-key synth. It's also one of the first keyboards to feature the now ubiquitous modulation and pitch-bend wheels.

One of my favorite examples of the classic Minimoog is the following solo in Pink Floyd's song "Shine on You Crazy Diamond."

4. The Synclavier

synclavier.jpgAlong with the Fairlight synthesizer, the Synclavier, made by New England Digital in 1975, was one of the very first keyboards that allowed musicians to sample sounds and store them in on-board computers. In fact, if you're an old fart like me, you might remember Stevie Wonder showing off this very sampling ability on his Synclavier in an episode of The Cosby Show (the one where the kids get into a car accident with him).

One really amazing thing about the Synclavier, other than its ability to sample the human voice or anything within a microphone's range, was its amazingly high sticker price. Costing upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (much less than the price of my parent's 3-bedroom apartment in Center City Philadelphia purchased around the same time), some Synclaviers even fetched closer to half-a-million.

Other noteworthy facts about the Synclavier: It was created at Dartmouth College by the team of: Sydney Alonso, who developed the hardware designs, Cameron Jones, who developed the software, and Dartmouth faculty member and composer Jon Appleton, a musical advisor to the project.
Other than the Cosby episode, which I can't find on YouTube, if you'd like to hear the Synclavier in action, check out one of the most famous samples in music history below (the gong at the beginning of "Beat It," by Michael Jackson):

5. The Fender Rhodes

rhodes.jpgAll I have to say is: the theme song from Taxi, and you should instantly know the sound of the Fender Rhodes. Ubiquitous throughout the 70s and 80s in dozens of maudlin ballads (which we'll sample momentarily), the Rhodes is named for its inventor, Harold Rhodes, who was a piano teacher before joining the Army Air Corps during WWII. It was there that he was asked to provide musical therapy, bedside, for the wounded and wound up inventing a small keyboard using aluminum pipes from the wings of B-17 bombers.

The pipes created such a pleasing sound, and Rhodes' therapy sessions became so well-known, he received the Medal of Honor after the war. Soon he was manufacturing a larger version, and, over time, new, improved versions. Eventually, the Rhodes was bought out by Fender, which is why people forever call it the Fender Rhodes.

In addition to the below clips, the Rhodes can be heard up and down Chick Corea's Light as a Feather, Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as well as on most of Weather Report's albums and Herbie Hancock's, too. It was a jazz-fusion staple for a couple decades there.

"Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel

"Angela (Theme from 'Taxi')" by Bob James

Ed note: The gorgeous Stevie Wonder keyboard pic (on the homepage) is by Al Satterwhite, via kalamu.

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Shazam, Shlemiel, Shlimazel

I've used Shazam on and off over the years to I.D. songs I either forgot the names of or just never knew. But the real test of any music recognition software is whether or not it can tell me what's playing on a classical music station. This is where you really need the app to come through because, let's face it, it could be 30 minutes or more before the piece ends and the radio announcer comes back on to tell you. Sadly, every time I've tried, the app has come up empty. I've even tested it with well-known pieces, like Barber's Adagio for Strings. Instead of coming back with at least "The theme from Platoon," Shazam says the piece is "unrecognized." What would Samuel Barber say?

Deciphering classical music presents a lot of challenges. For starters, recordings are indistinguishable when you're talking about a 12-second sample size. For example, there are more than 200 recordings of Beethoven's 5th Symphony! Not quite like learning the beat of a B52s song, is it?

Tempi vary wildly from recording to recording and, as I understand it, it's the tempo/beat mapping that Shazam is really working off of. But technology will improve, rest assured. The Shazams of the future will surely be able to not only distinguish between Mozart's Requiem and Berlioz's Requiem, but the hundreds of recordings of each. Until then, well, I guess the beat goes on...

Have any funny or interesting experiences with music recognition software? Let us know in the comments below.

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