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Hyperion Records

LSO0029 - Holst: The Planets
LSO0029

Recording details: June 2002
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: May 2003
Total duration: 49 minutes 43 seconds

'Colin Davis, as might be expected, has no problems, conjuring like Uranus the Magician, the full panoply of atmosphere, stillness and energy from the vitruoso LSO' (The Daily Telegraph)

The Planets

The Planets became one of the most popular and widely recognized musical works of the twentieth century. Holst himself conducted the LSO in two early recordings of his masterpiece. Sir Colin Davis's blazing performance, recorded over three evenings in June 2002, was one of the classical releases of the year.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Born in Cheltenham in 1874, Holst was the first child of the pianist and organist Adolph von Holst. He attended Cheltenham Grammar School from 1887 to 1891, crafting short compositions and slowly learning the rudiments of harmony and counterpoint. In 1892 he was appointed organist and choirmaster of the parish church in the village of Wyck Rissington. The following year he joined the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Stanford and became close friends with his fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In 1901 he married Isobel Henderson, supporting their early years together by playing trombone in the Scottish Orchestra and from teaching. Holst became director of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith in 1905 and two years later assumed responsibility for music making at Morley College. Although his commitment to music education remained at the heart of his career for many years, Holst devoted his spare time to composition and managed to craft his large-scale orchestral work The Planets during the early years of the First World War. Although unfit for active service, Holst travelled to the Middle East in 1918 to organise the music programme of the YMCA’s army education scheme.

His reputation as a composer was established thanks to the popular and critical success of The Planets and of works such as The Hymn of Jesus and his operas The Perfect Fool and At the Boar’s Head. Passions for astrology, Hindu literature and philosophy, English folk music, Thomas Hardy and amateur music-making influenced his work, which was curtailed in the final years of his life by ill health. He died in London in 1934.

In 1913, Holst went on holiday in Spain with the composers Balfour Gardiner and Arnold Bax, and Arnold’s playwright brother Clifford. Clifford Bax was knowledgable about astrology, and he kindled Holst’s already nascent interest. Holst was soon expertly casting horoscopes for his friends. He wrote to one of them: ‘As a rule I only study things that suggest music to me. That’s why I worried at Sanskrit. Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.’ The following year he began writing The Planets.

The Planets was to be his largest orchestral work, scored for the largest forces he ever used, including quadruple woodwind, six horns, tenor and bass tubas and organ, plus an off-stage female chorus in the last movement. Unlike his friend Vaughan Williams, Holst shied away from the symphony, but the astrological attributes of the planets of the solar system (excluding Earth, and Pluto, which had not then been discovered) suggested to him a series of pieces in contrasting moods and tempi. The first four planets in fact do correspond to the traditional movements of the symphony, with Venus as the slow movement and Mercury the scherzo. By August 1914 he had worked out a detailed formal scheme, and begun composition with Mars, which was completed just before the outbreak of World War I. He finished The Planets in 1916 with Mercury. In September 1918, just before Holst left for Salonica to do music educational work with the troops there, Balfour Gardiner gave him the extraordinarily generous present of a private performance at the Queen’s Hall in London, with the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. After the first public performance the following year The Planets soon became extremely popular, and has always remained so. Holst, however, was wary of success: ‘… it’s a great thing to be a failure. If nobody likes your work, you have to go on just for the sake of your work’, he wrote to Clifford Bax. He never even considered The Planets to be one of his best works; yet like it or not, he had created that rare thing, a popular classic.

Mars is often thought to be ‘about’ World War I, or at least a premonition of it, which Holst was at some pains to deny. Nonetheless, he produced an uncanny evocation of the kind of warfare that was about to be unleashed on the world, with pounding drums in 5/4 time that drive through the piece, the fanfares that herald the first climax and pile up in the central section, and the shattering gunfire dissonances at the end. It is a relentlessly brutal and terrifying vision, and calls for a soothing response, which the softly undulating chords of Venus immediately provide. The middle section, with solo violin, is one of the last examples in Holst’s music of the kind of romantic music he had spent many years trying to give up: overt expression of emotion never came naturally to him.

Mercury is the kind of music with which he was much more at home: a fleeting scherzo, with the outer sections in two keys at once (E and B flat) enclosing twelve (and a half) repetitions of a lithe, folk-like tune. If Mercury is mercurial, Jupiter is certainly jovial. There are two hearty dance-tunes for the six horns in unison (the first with the strings) and a big maestoso tune – the work’s most famous – in the central section. Holst’s daughter Imogen relates how, at the Queen’s Hall in 1918, ‘during Jupiter the charwomen working in the corridors put down their scrubbing brushes and began to dance’. Saturn comes as a complete contrast. The bleak chords for the flutes at the start, the chilling double-bass phrase that moves up into the violins, and then the slow processional music for trombones over a pizzicato ostinato bass all foreshadow Holst’s late masterpiece Egdon Heath. Saturn was Holst’s favourite movement: it is absolutely personal to him. With Uranus we are back in a homelier and more derivative world: the galumphing dance music is sometimes not too far away from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. But the sudden shift into remoteness at the end is a stroke of genius, and prepares us for Neptune. This is the most distant music possible: strange and still. Holst directs the orchestra to play pianissimo throughout, with a dead tone except for the clarinet melody and its continuation on the violins which occurs just after the entry of the off-stage chorus on a high G: a last echo of human life in the dark world of outer space. The chorus ends The Planets with two chords, ‘repeated until the sound is lost in the distance’, in Holst’s instruction. The two chords, separately, are familiar: the first occurs in Wagner, for instance, the second in Beethoven. Together, they form something quite different.

David Matthews & Andrew Stewart © 2002

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