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. 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.
from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2001