Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” in Our Galaxy, Close to Home

Think Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and any movie set in space, and the music score is most likely inspired by Gustav Theodore Holst’s The Planets. John Williams, indeed, did borrow from Holst’s first movement: “Mars, the Bringer of War,” in his depiction of the Empire forces in Star Wars.

Holst composed the suite between 1914 and 1916 and it is his most notable and recognizable piece of music. While he created operas, chamber, vocal and orchestral music, his “Planets” is closely tied to his name.

He dragged his feet during the creation process because he feared there wouldn’t be a large enough orchestra during wartime to handle his lavish demands. The work premiered in London, although I cannot confirm the exact date (one source tells me Sept. 29, 1918 under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult; another source simply names Boult as the conductor; and still another tells me Nov. 15, 1920 in London with Albert Coates).

The suite has seven movements for the planets known at the time (Pluto was discovered in 1930 and Earth wasn’t mentioned):

Mars, the Bringer of War
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Uranus, the Magician
Neptune, the Mystic

In 1913, Holst was introduced to astrology and since that time, he developed an interest in the planets and their astrological characters. He wrote a note before its premiere that stated: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no programme music, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names.” He goes on to describe Jupiter as jolly with the kind of rejoicing associated with religions or national festivities; Saturn as physical decay and a vision of fulfillment; and Mercury as a symbol of the mind.

Today’s score is often performed in a pops setting in conjunction with a planetarium. The concert is a fascinating experience and a draw for kids.

Want more “Planets” descriptions? Check out Michael Steinberg’s program notes for the San Francisco Symphony.


The Planets with Ted Libbey and Fred Child

Have you experienced The Planets in concert? What was it like?

Who’s Performing The Planets:
Portland Symphony Orchestra
Nov. 9, 2010
7:30 p.m.

Nashville Symphony
Feb. 17 – 19, 2011
7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra
April 14 16, 2011
7:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

The Philadelphia Orchestra
May 12 – 14 and 17, 2011
7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

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