Movement 1: Mars – The bringer of war
Movement 2: Venus – The bringer of peace
Movement 3: Mercury – The winged messenger
Movement 4: Jupiter – The bringer of jollity
Movement 5: Saturn – The bringer of old age
Movement 6: Uranus – The magician
Movement 7: Neptune – The mystic
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
Of spring; behold his flower;
Fair babe of life to whom
Death and the dreamy tomb
Was nothing yesterday, and now is all.
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.
from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2001