Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
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 origin of The Planets lies in a walking holiday in Spain that Holst took with his close friend Clifford Bax in 1913. They discovered a mutual interest in astrology, and their conversations sparked the idea for a large-scale work exploring the personality traits associated with the planets.
Such interests were not unusual. From Theosophy to Conan Doyle’s advocacy of the existence of fairies and the thriving trade in Necromancy, the supernatural and paranormal were popular throughout society. The frisson of scandal provided by the likes of the occultist Aleister Crowley added spice to the fashion for spiritualism of all hues. The British Empire, built on the science of the Industrial Revolution, created a ready market for mysticism from the East. This was reflected in the art of the era: Holst’s own Choral hymns from the Rig Veda were an early success.
Holst’s interest in mysticism and astrology was more than a passing fad: he continued to cast horoscopes for his friends throughout his life. His attention in The Planets however was focussed less on divination than character. Holst’s subtitles for each planet play fairly loose with strict ideas of astrological significance. It was more important to him to convey a sense of the development of human character than to be tied down by dogma. The overall plan combines a sequence of contrasting pairs with a progression from the physical to the spiritual. The movement that upsets this pattern, Mercury, was also the last to be composed, and Holst seems to have had trouble deciding how it should fit in. In a letter to a friend he recalled that “As far as I can remember I had the scheme of the Planets roughly worked out in my mind by Easter 1914 except Mercury which was added later.”
At the time he composed the suite, Holst was firmly established in his roles as director of music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith and at Morley College in Waterloo, two posts he retained for the rest of his working life. This settled life was disturbed when war broke out in September 1914. Holst rushed to enlist, but was rejected because of poor eyesight. He was eventually offered a post working for the YMCA in Salonika as part of their educational work with the troops based in the near East. Before he left, Balfour Gardiner, who had championed many of his earlier works, gave him a generous parting gift: a private performance of The Planets by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Boult. Holst enlisted his pupils as the chorus in “Neptune”, as well as copyists to produce the orchestral parts. The work was performed at the Queen’s Hall in September 1918. Boult conducted partial performances in 1919, omitting Venus and Neptune, but it was not until November 1920 that the complete work was “officially” heard in public for the first time. By then Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, composed immediately after The Planets, had been premiered to great acclaim, and the orchestral work’s official debut had become an Event. Reviews of the early outings of the movements had been mixed (the Times described it as “Elaborately contrived and painful to hear”) but the reception afforded the official premiere verged on the fulsome.
Mars is often taken to signify Holst’s reaction to the outbreak of war in September 1914. What is depicted, however, is a psychological conflict. The warlike temperament is one that turns upon itself, reflected in the theme that continually tries to expand but collapses in on itself, all the time driven by the restless tattoo that underpins virtually the entire movement.
Venus sounds much simpler than Mars, but is in fact filled with a sophisticated subtlety alien to the Bringer of War. Elements of the opening movement are here transformed from negative, unresolved tension into ethereal beauty. In this light, Mercury may be seen as a kind of transformation of Mars, showing how its characteristics may lead to positive and inventive behaviour when tempered by Venusian serenity. This playful and fleet-footed movement may contain an element of self-portrait: Holst’s own star sign was Virgo ruled by Mercury.
Of all the movements, Jupiter has perhaps suffered the most from its popularity. The unfortunate appropriation of its central melody as a patriotic hymn has brought associations of solemnity and piety that really have nothing to do with its true character. It is certainly exhilarating, but partial performances of the suite that use it as a finale miss the point: its energy is of the physical world and therefore transient (Holst’s use of the term “Jollity” rather than “Joy” is significant). This is emphasised by its complement, Saturn. However, the Bringer of Old Age is not the tragic figure some see it as. The steady tread reflects the inevitability of physical decay, and its conclusion the serenity that follows acceptance of this. Only by accepting the passage of time can one hope to transcend it and enter the metaphysical realm of the final two movements.
The first of these, Uranus, the Magician, would appear to be played as comedy. The term “Magician” has inescapable associations with children’s birthday parties, and Uranus comes across be a conjuror rather than the magus we might expect from the portentous opening flourish. Perhaps Holst is poking fun at the pretentions of the occultist movement. The music easily brings to mind a Crowley-like figure grandiosely casting spells. The comedy falls away at the climax, as something altogether more dark and powerful is revealed, and the Magician realises he is dabbling with something rather serious.
Neptune, the Mystic moves into another realm altogether. Its meter and much of its thematic material echo events right back to Mars, but transformed far beyond the concerns of the physical world. The incorporeal aspect is emphasised by an offstage female chorus (for the audience, literally disembodied voices). There is no conclusion of any conventional kind: only the voices, floating into the distance endlessly.