The Planets

From Academic Kids

This page is about a suite of music by Gustav Holst. For celestial bodies, see planet, for the 1990s jazz rap band, see Digable Planets. For the planets in our solar system, see solar system.

The Planets (also known as The Planets Suite), opus 32, is an orchestral suite by the English composer Gustav Holst. It was written between 1914 and 1916 and received its first complete public performance on October 10, 1920 in Birmingham, with Appleby Matthews conducting. The suite has seven movements, each of them named after a planet (and its corresponding Roman deity):

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  6. Uranus, the Magician
  7. Neptune, the Mystic

The concept of the work is astrological rather than astronomical (which is why Earth is not included) with the Moon and the Sun replaced by the planets Uranus and Neptune, which were unknown to the classical world. The idea was suggested to Holst by Clifford Bax who introduced him to astrology. Each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the Roman deity in question. Holst also used Alan Leo's book What is a Horoscope? as a jumping board for his own ideas, as well as for the subtitles (e.g., "The Bringer of...") for the movements.

The Planets is scored for a large orchestra, including an organ and, in the last movement, a wordless women’s choir. Holst’s use of orchestra in this work is very imaginative and colourful, showing the influence of Igor Stravinsky and other continental composers rather than his English predecessors. The audience at the first performance was excited by such new sonorities and the suite was an instant success. Although The Planets remains Holst’s most popular work, the composer himself didn’t count it as one of his best creations and later often complained about his other works being completely eclipsed by it. He did, however, conduct a recorded performance of the suite in the early 1920s.

With the exception of the first two movements, the order of the movements corresponds to increasing distance of their eponymous planets from the Earth. Some commentators have suggested that this is intentional, with the anomaly of Mars preceding Venus being either a device to make the first four movements match the form of a symphonietta or being a consequence of the common misconception that Mars is actually closer than Venus. An alternative explanation is derivable from the astrological concept of rulership of signs of the zodiac by planets. If the zodiac signs are listed along with their ruling planets in the traditional order starting with Aries and duplicate planets, the then undiscovered Pluto, and the luminaries (the Sun and the Moon) are omitted, then the order obtained matches the order of the movements in the suite.

The "Mars" and "Jupiter" movements, in particular, have often been used as film and television music, such as in The Quatermass Experiment and The Right Stuff. "Mars" was used heavily in episode five of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, entitled Blues for a Red Planet, which examined the fact and fiction of the planet Mars. In addition, the "Mars" movement was used as the "Martian National Anthem" in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. The melody of the slow middle section of "Jupiter" became popular as the patriotic hymn "Thaxted," with words (beginning "I vow to thee, my country") added by Cecil Spring-Rice, although Holst had no such patriotic intentions when he wrote the music. His own favourite movement was "Saturn".

Although Pluto was discovered in 1930, four years prior to Holst's death, Holst expressed no interest in writing a movement for it. In 2000, The Hall Orchestra commissioned composer Colin Matthews, a Holst specialist, to write a new movement to be played with the suite. Matthews called his piece Pluto, the Renewer, and it was first performed in Manchester on May 11, 2000, with Kent Nagano conducting the Hall Orchestra. Ironically, the movement was added at about the same time that astronomers were coming to question the status of Pluto as a planet (see the article on Pluto for further details).

To make his new movement fit, Matthews changed the ending of the "Neptune" movement to transition to "Pluto." On the Nagano CD recording, "Neptune" is offered on two different tracks so as to allow the listener to choose whether or not to hear "Pluto" by selecting the track order.


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