Mars – The bringer of war [7'42]
Venus – The bringer of peace [7'25]
Uranus – The magician [6'01]
When Gustav Holst composed his celebrated suite 'The Planets' during the First World War, the solar system was bounded by the orbit of Neptune ('The Mystic' in Holst's astrological subtitle)—which Holst naturally placed at the end of his masterpiece. It was not until fifteen years later that American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, trying to find the reason for peculiarities in Neptune's orbit, realised that there was another planet further out whose gravitational pull was influencing it. And so was discovered the dark, remote and mysterious world of Pluto, named after the king of the Underworld. The discovery was made but three years before Holst's death, but he never expressed any intention of adding it to his by-then famous work. Sixty years later, invited to do so by The Hallé Orchestra, the challenge was taken up by Colin Matthews whose 'Pluto—The Renewer' emerges eerily from the disappearing final bars of 'Neptune'. This was the first recording of Holst's 'Planets' with the additional planet, sumptuously recorded by Tony Faulkner in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall.
The CD also includes Holst's late Lyric Movement for viola and chamber orchestra, written in 1933, the year before the composer died.
Gustav Holst, until nearly the end of the First World War known as ‘von Holst’, came from a refugee Latvian-Russian musical family that had arrived in England in the early nineteenth century and settled in Cheltenham. His great-grandfather had actually served at the Imperial Russian court. However, that had been over half a century before Holst’s birth, and in the 1880s and early 1890s the young Gustav was infused with the spirit of the Gloucestershire countryside, and as a teenager was organist or choirmaster at local churches, notably at Wyck Rissington and Bourton, and wrote music for local performance, particularly a well-received operetta, Landsdown Castle. We can imagine all too well the impact on an impressionable imagination of walking the stretch of hills between Wyck Rissington and Bourton-on-the-Water in all seasons, before the arrival of the petrol engine. One member of the Bourton Choral Society remembered a rehearsal of the choir in 1892 taken by Holst, who arrived carrying ‘an old-fashioned stable lantern which he had borrowed at Wyck Rissington to light him on the road to Bourton … and would catch the last train to Cheltenham’.
Holst’s father taught him the piano, violin and trombone, and the young musician went on to study with Stanford at the Royal College of Music from 1893 to 1898. But even when young he began to be troubled by neuritis in his right arm, which curtailed his keyboard skills. He was not well-off, unlike so many of his musical contemporaries, and he first earned his living as a professional trombone player, touring with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and later joining the Scottish Orchestra. This was of enormous value to him as a composer, as he gained a practical understanding of the orchestra from the inside, experience which characterized his flair and brilliance for orchestral writing throughout his life.
Becoming a school music teacher, he was appointed to the newly established St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, going there in 1905, at first to teach singing, and remaining until 1934. So good were his relations with the school, and Frances Ralph Gray, the pioneering first High Mistress, that they soon built him a special sound-proofed room in which to compose. And it was at the school that he was surrounded by a team of able and willing young female admirers whose practical help in getting his music down on paper and copied, played a huge role in the evolution of The Planets in particular.
What is particularly notable, despite producing a large catalogue of music, is that Holst was in his forties before he achieved recognition—or even extensive performance—as a composer. Established after the First World War, particularly with The Planets, which became one of the most successful British orchestral works of all time, Holst’s mature career was cut short by his early death at the age of fifty-nine.
Holst was an active composer from the first, but he took a long time to find a personal voice. For many years his early music was completely unknown in performance, as his daughter Imogen, for the best of reasons, suppressed it, feeling that his mature achievement should first be appreciated before unrepresentative immature works were played. The composer himself referred to his ‘early horrors’ as ‘good old Wagnerian bawling’ and it is true that in such orchestral scores as his tone poem Indra and his opera Sita, Holst was looking to Wagner both for technique and expression. In 1900 he produced his symphony The Cotswolds, but here his sources are more likely to have been his experience of Stanford’s composition classes, two years as an orchestral musician, and the examples of Dvorák, Brahms and particularly the orchestral music of Grieg, with its overtones of folksong, in 1899 blowing like a fresh Nordic wind through British music.
Other orchestral works included pieces such as the Winter Idyll, the Walt Whitman Overture and a Suite de ballet as well as songs and partsongs and some very early chamber music. All more or less conventional works of their day. By 1904 his later style was beginning to emerge in works such as the twenty-minute scena The Mystic Trumpeter, setting Walt Whitman’s ‘From Noon to Starry Night’ for soprano and orchestra, and various works using folksong such as A Somerset Rhapsody and Marching Song. At this time his opera Sita failed to win the prize offered by G Ricordi for a British opera and the forward-looking chamber opera Savitri would not be appreciated until the 1920s and beyond. But many short choral works, often to translations of Sanskrit texts, began to provide Holst with a body of completed music which demonstrated a more mature personal style.
So, for Holst, success came very gradually, and by the First World War he had still only achieved very few performances. Indeed he must have thought of himself as an almost complete failure—though he professed not to care. It was his friend Balfour Gardiner who lifted the weight of defeat from Holst’s shoulders when he promoted three works in 1912 and 1913. Thus came the first hearings of the oriental suite Beni Mora, of the revised version of The Mystic Trumpeter and of The Cloud Messenger, a forty-minute choral setting of the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa. So when, in 1914, Holst started to write what became The Planets, he was a seasoned composer, but not a popular one. With little wider following, working in a private world and with no enforced deadlines or promise of performance, Holst was certainly writing for himself.
Debussy began to be heard in England in the early 1900s, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune being first played in London in August 1904. It had an enormous influence on the emerging generation of composers and between the first performance of La mer in 1908 and Nocturnes in 1909 and the outbreak of the First World War, orchestral music in England changed. Diaghilev arrived in 1911 with his Ballets russes, adding Stravinsky (The Firebird, 1912; Petrushka, 1913 and The Rite of Spring, 1913), and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1914), to the mix. Composers’ orchestral palettes were vividly expanded and the grip of Teutonic musical apparatus was dealt a significant blow. These influences are internalized by Holst in The Planets, composed between 1914 and 1916. Reflecting these examples by the newly emergent European composers immediately before the First World War, Holst’s orchestra in The Planets is very large, including six horns and four trumpets with brass to match. Two flutes, two piccolos (the second alternating with bass flute), and two oboes with cor anglais and bass oboe, two harps and organ all provided Holst with a wonderfully varied palette of sound to work from. Particularly worth listening out for are the distinctive sounds of the bass (or alto) flute, and the bass oboe, the latter an instrument also heard in colourful scores of this vintage by Delius and Bax.
When, in 1913, Holst started telling Clifford Bax about his new-found interest in astrology while on a holiday trip to Majorca, another member of the party, the composer Balfour Gardiner, was contemptuous about it all. In Clifford Bax’s book Inland Far: a Collection of Memoirs he describes this holiday, taken with three composers—his brother Arnold, Balfour Gardiner and Holst—in March 1913. Balfour Gardiner did not approve at all. ‘A frown puckered Gardiner’s brow’, Clifford Bax recalled. ‘We could almost hear him muttering, “Really, really!”. And there is no doubt our conversation grieved him’. Yet it was Balfour who would finance a private performance of The Planets at Queen’s Hall before Holst’s departure for Salonica on war service on 29 September 1918. To conduct this performance Holst asked the almost unknown Adrian Boult, then employed by the military procuring boots for the British Army. An army of young music students from St Paul’s helped Holst prepare the orchestral parts.
Although ostensibly ‘private’ the performance was reported in the Pall Mall Gazette the next day. The first public performance, at a Philharmonic Society concert also conducted by Boult (on 27 February 1919), omitted ‘Venus’ and ‘Neptune’ and must have given a much more heavyweight effect than when those two serene movements are present. It was widely reported. Later in 1919 the composer conducted three movements (‘Venus’, ‘Mercury’ and ‘Jupiter’) at Queen’s Hall in November that year, and Sir Henry Wood followed with the same three movements, though in a different order, some three weeks later. Not until the following June was it heard again, when two movements appeared at St Paul’s Girls’ School, in the version for two pianos.
So this was a work finding its opportunity only slowly, and the performance of separate movements was the mechanism by which it was becoming known to concert promoters and critics. It was the choral work The Hymn of Jesus which propelled Holst into the limelight when it was heard in London in March 1920, and quickly was widely performed; it created an awareness of Holst which must have fuelled expectations of the new orchestral suite.
Only the second complete performance of The Planets (the first of the entire work in public) now came in Birmingham conducted by Appleby Matthews on Sunday 10 October 1920. The first complete London performance was given by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates followed at Queen’s Hall on 15 November, and in December it was heard in Chicago when it was reported ‘a great success’. Over the next two or three years The Planets tended to be represented by two or three movements, though Albert Coates returned to perform it complete in November 1921 and also took it to New York. In December 1922 the British conductor Eugene Goossens took five movements to Berlin (‘Mars, Bringer des Krieges; Merkur, des gesflügelte Bote; Uranus, der Zauberer; Saturn, Bringer des Alters; Jupiter, Bringer des Fröhsinns’). The publication of the orchestral full score late in 1921, in a limited edition of 200 copies, was another stimulus to its wider dissemination. Possibly an even greater stimulus was Holst’s own acoustic recording issued a disc at a time between 1923 and 1925 and widely reviewed in the national press. Holst did not conduct it at a Promenade Concert until 1923, but by the mid 1920s The Planets was well-established and increasingly heard.
The manuscript of The Planets is headed simply: ‘Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra’, and it must have been his last manuscript on which Holst signed himself as ‘von Holst’. During the war there had been reports of Holst being hassled by the police on account of his name, and before departing on war service he finally formally changed to just ‘Holst’.
Apart from the works of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky already referred to, one of the most notable London orchestral premieres before August 1914 was of the Five Orchestral Pieces of Schoenberg, first performed on 3 September 1912 conducted by Sir Henry Wood, and repeated in January 1914 under the baton of Schoenberg himself. Several recent commentators have suggested that Holst’s starting point may well have been the example of Schoenberg’s revolutionary score. He was the one significant Austro-German composer who may well have influenced Holst in producing an orchestral work on such a scale. We should remember the role of the Queen’s Hall in presenting a wonderful kaleidoscope of the new orchestral music to the London musical population, particularly in the years immediately before the First World War. This has not been fully explored, yet its influence must have been enormous. It seems probable that Holst would have been present at so unusual a premiere as Schoenberg’s pioneering masterpiece, then thought a joke by many. Indeed, a note in his appointments book suggests Holst was certainly at the second London performance in 1914, and even more interesting, Lowinger Maddison, director of the Holst Birthplace Museum, has drawn attention to the existence of a miniature score of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces that Holst regarded as one of his most valued possessions. Even more important perhaps, he kept Schoenberg’s score near him when composing, even annotating and ticking certain orchestral effects. Certainly in ‘Venus’ we can find a celesta phrase remarkably similar to one in Schoenberg’s score.
Holst gestated The Planets for two or three years, and with the exception of ‘Mercury’, which was written last, he wrote them in the sequence in which we now know them. (Before the First World War the planet Pluto was yet to be discovered.) However, Holst does not present the inner planets in planetary order, which is of course: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars. By working first inward and then out from Mars we arrive at Holst’s sequence which, taking into account the characters of the planets, now resembles a ‘seven ages of man’ sequence, from youth to age. The Planets was actually composed over a period of nearly two years; Holst said it grew in his mind slowly, ‘like a baby in a woman’s womb. During those two years it seemed of itself more and more definitely to be taking form’.
First, in 1914, came the insistent rhythmic tread of ‘Mars’. But it was far from being a reaction to the outbreak of war, for Holst had completed his sketch by July, before war had been declared. Later, during the first autumn of the war, came ‘Venus’ (‘The Bringer of Peace’) and then ‘Jupiter’ (‘The Bringer of Jollity’). The summer and autumn of 1915 saw him complete ‘Uranus’ and ‘Neptune’, while ‘Mercury’ was not done until early in 1916. We should also remember that Holst worked very slowly and because of the neuritis in his right arm was helped by a varied team of devoted amanuenses, mainly his former students from St Paul’s School. Thus the manuscript is in a variety of hands which his daughter Imogen, in the published facsimile, was largely able to identify.
How far should we take the astrological significance of The Planets and what it meant to Holst? On the one hand, astrology is reported as being a short-lived interest as far as Holst was concerned, which began to wane once his orchestral suite had left him. Elsewhere he is reported as long being able to cast friends’ horoscopes. Perhaps of most interest is the realization that the possible astrological background to the music was not followed up by any commentator at the time. In fact, it may well be that too close an interest in any detailed astrological significance of the work would have prejudiced the success of the music, astrology perhaps generally being viewed as suspect.
In her introduction to the facsimile edition of the manuscript of The Planets, Imogen Holst noted that one of the books her father had read was Alan Leo’s What is a Horoscope?, published in London in 1913. Alan Leo was the pseudonym of Frederick William Allan, who produced a string of popular books and pamphlets promoting astrology in the years before and during the First World War. HoIst’s copy had the subtitle ‘and how to cast it’, and, as we have noted, Holst was a lifelong amateur ‘practitioner’, though only among friends. It was Leo who alerted Holst to the character of the planets, giving each planet a thumbnail description such as ‘Mars the Warlord’ and ‘Saturn the Reaper’. During the war Leo gave a series of lectures entitled ‘Saturn the Reaper’, but Holst only took his title of ‘The Mystic’ for ‘Neptune’ from Leo’s description.
The first movement, ‘Mars—The Bringer of War’, has inevitably suggested to audiences the war, but as we have seen Holst drafted it before he can have realized that war might become a reality. With its insistent 5/4 rhythm and winding horn/brass motion, it is notable for the way its climaxes are built over wide spans, and for the power of those climaxes when they are reached, and for the discordant opposition of keys such as D flat and C. The remarkable edge given to the strings’ articulation of the rhythm at the outset is typical of the new sound-world we are entering, the strings playing ‘col legno’ (with the wood of the bow) underlined by two harps in the depth of their compass. Leo characterized people born under the influence of Mars as ‘headstrong, forceful and assertive’.
It is followed by ‘Venus—The Bringer of Peace’. This brings an immediate contrast; gone are the brass and percussion, and a mood of limpid calm in the outer sections anticipates the infinities of ‘Neptune’. Venus signalled someone of ‘an even disposition’ and a lover of ‘all beautiful things’. Here a typical fingerprint is the oscillating chords notably played very softly by flutes and harps, though perhaps in the middle section Holst may not have been altogether successful in suggesting the warmth of the ‘affectional and emotional side’ of those born under its influence.
‘Mercury—The Winged Messenger’ is the scherzo following what was effectively the slow movement. Still absent is the weight of the massed sound of ‘Mars’, the flickering contrasts between woodwind and muted strings creating a remarkably fleet-footed mood. Sounding like a fragment from some half-remembered folk tune Holst chases a melodic phrase from solo violin round the orchestra, and certainly succeeds in establishing the quickness of thought Mercury is said to give those under its influence, as well as the ‘adaptability’ and ‘fertility of resource’ identified by Leo. Holst once remarked ‘Mercury is the symbol of the mind’.
With ‘Jupiter—The Bringer of Jollity’ Holst now gives us good tunes and fulsome orchestration and brings us back to earth, celebrating the ‘abundance of life and vitality’ with music that is ‘buoyant and hopeful’. Nobility and generosity are characteristics of those born under this planetary sign, though at the arrival of the familiar tune, later given Cecil Spring Rice’s words ‘I vow to thee my country’, Holst would not have played it as a national hymn, as he demonstrated in his own recordings of the music. Yet even though for many years there would undoubtedly have been a stiffening of backs in the audience when it arrived, this tune must in many ways have contributed to the enormous success of the suite as a whole.
‘Saturn—The Bringer of Old Age’ is remarkable for its inexorable tread (note the bass flute at several points). Yet, as Holst noted, ‘Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfilment’. There is another clue, for the music is recast from a choral setting Holst had made not long before under the title Dirge and Hymeneal. Here he set words by Thomas Lovell Beddoes:
Woe, woe, this is death’s hour
Imogen Holst noted the ‘patient’ and ‘enduring’ characteristics identified by Leo, though elsewhere the latter noted that ‘those born under its influence will be more plodding and persevering than brilliant and active’. Holst goes well beyond his astrological starting point in underlining the transience of life, although surely at the end, in ‘Neptune’, he relents and offers the consolation of eternity to which ‘Saturn’ has led, though not before the fireworks of ‘Uranus’.
The influence of ‘Uranus—The Magician’ gives ‘eccentric, abrupt’ and ‘unexpected’ traits. By choosing the subtitle ‘The Magician’ Holst was doubtless referring to the more occult strands that might colour those under its influence. Malcolm MacDonald has pointed out that the arresting four-note figure is in fact based on a musical representation of Holst’s name (GuStAv H). Is Holst himself the Magician? This might be interestingly explored in the light of Michael Short’s observation that this motif is also reminiscent of the appearance of Pan in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.
‘Neptune—The Mystic’ is the only title that Holst actually borrowed from Alan Leo’s book, who characterized the sign as ‘subtle’ and ‘mysterious’. The planet Neptune, at the far edges of the solar system, looks out to interstellar space, as man faces the evermore, ‘to infinity’, as Imogen Holst remarked. This is a fascinating movement to see on the page, for its patterning in the strings and harps. Holst marks it to be played ‘sempre pp throughout’, calling for the sound to be softly evoked by cymbals played with felt sticks and the timpani with wooden ones. Perhaps most remarkable is the halo of light Holst evokes particularly with quietly rippling harp figures, celesta and high sustained violins. This study in pianissimo textures closes with the out-of-sight vocalizing female choir slowly fading. We may suspect that so experienced a choirmaster as Holst had no intention for them to loose pitch as they became ever quieter, and asks for them to be placed in an adjoining room, the door to be slowly and silently closed at the end.
The Planets and his choral work The Hymn of Jesus made Holst famous in the years immediately after the First World War though he did not relish the experience. He now entered the short-lived phase of his mature composition and briefly seemed to anticipate the coming vogue for neoclassicism, finding himself in accord with the times, though through independent exploration. From this time comes the Ode to Death; two short operas (indeed anti-operas), The Perfect Fool and At the Boar’s Head; the Fugal Overture and Fugal Concerto; the First Choral Symphony; various partsongs; two choral ballets; and the haunting Hardy-esque orchestral landscape Egdon Heath. In his last years Holst seemed to have found a new vision with music of commanding technical resource. These included A Choral Fantasia, the late comic opera The Wandering Scholar, the Brook Green Suite for school orchestra, Hammersmith (a tone poem for military band), the Scherzo intended for an unwritten symphony and the Lyric Movement written when he was already too ill to attend the first performance.
The Lyric Movement for viola and small orchestra (very small, just one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and strings) was one of Holst’s last works, written in 1933 for the pioneering viola player Lionel Tertis, who gave the first performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult on 18 March 1934. With its shifting harmonies and haunted half-lights, this is an epitome of his late orchestral style; the work might almost have been called ‘Nocturne’. Here Holst achieves a remarkable eloquence, the clarity of his textures and the soaring solo viola reflecting an authority he had been searching for all his life.
‘Pluto’ received its first performance in Manchester on 11 May 2000, when Kent Nagano conducted the Hallé Orchestra. Its first London performance was at the Proms on 22 July that year. The composer Colin Matthews has written the following about ‘Pluto’:
When Kent Nagano asked me to add ‘Pluto’ to The Planets I had mixed feelings. To begin with, The Planets is a very satisfying whole, and one which makes perfect musical sense. ‘Neptune’ ends the work in a way wholly appropriate for Holst—an enigmatic composer, always likely to avoid the grand gesture if he could do something unpredictable instead. How could I begin again, after the music has completely faded away as if into outer space? And, even though Pluto was discovered four years before Holst’s death in 1934, I am certain that he never once thought to write an additional movement (he was in any case decidedly ambivalent about the work’s huge popularity). In addition, the matter of Pluto’s status as a planet has for some time been in doubt—it may well be reclassified (together with its tiny satellite Charon) as no more than an asteroid, thrown way out of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, or ‘captured’ by the sun’s gravitational field. (Another intriguing fact about Pluto is that its elliptical orbit means that between 1979 and 1999 it was nearer to the sun than Neptune.)
Yet the challenge of trying to write a new movement for The Planets without attempting to impersonate Holst eventually proved irresistible. It quickly became clear that it would be pointless to write a movement that was even more remote than ‘Neptune’ unless the whole orchestra were to join the chorus off-stage. Nor did I feel that I should rely on the astrological significance of Pluto, which is more than a little ambiguous (not that astrologers seem to have problems with a minute planet that they have only just become aware of). In any case I am a thoroughgoing sceptic as far as astrology is concerned—I suspect that Holst’s interest too was pretty peripheral—and, apart from choosing the title ‘Pluto—the Renewer’, left that aspect to one side.
The only possible way to carry on from where ‘Neptune’ leaves off is not to make a break at all, and so ‘Pluto’ begins before ‘Neptune’ has quite faded, necessitating a slight change to the ending. (The original version of ‘Neptune’ is also included on this disc.) And it is very fast—faster even than ‘Mercury’: solar winds were my starting point. The movement soon took on an identity of its own, following a path which I seemed to be simply allowing to proceed as it would: in the process I came perhaps closer to Holst than I had expected, although at no point did I think to write pastiche. At the end the music disappears, almost as if ‘Neptune’ had been quietly continuing in the background.
‘Pluto’ is dedicated to the memory of Holst’s daughter Imogen, with whom I worked for many years until her death in 1984, and who I suspect would have been both amused and dismayed by this venture.
Colin Matthews (b1946) first came to general attention for his work with Deryck Cooke on the performing version of Mahler’s Symphony No 10 and for his association with Benjamin Britten in his later years, and with Imogen Holst, encouraging her to explore her father’s forgotten music. As a composer Matthews has a substantial list of works, first noted for his Fourth Sonata for orchestra in 1975, and coming to wider attention with Suns Dance (1985) memorable for its sudden changes between contrasted ideas and the dramatic monolithic sound of Memorial (1993) celebrating the Thiepval war memorial. In ‘Pluto’ Matthews takes as his starting point the choral fade-out of ‘Neptune’ and almost as a flash-back produces a pianissimo world, a mercurial scurrying of chromatic runs and scales. The long-held very soft pedal points, evocative orchestral colour, and the shining effect of harp and celesta, all add to the almost tangible pictorial effect. Two great outbursts are suddenly upon us and as quickly vanish, perhaps a comet suddenly streaking into view, recalling the impact of Matthew’s earlier Suns Dance. Almost before we realize it the distant vocalizing choir floats into our hearing again, as if it had been there throughout, and Matthews is back with Holst confronting the infinite.
Lewis Foreman © 2001