First things first: Gustav Holst was a Virgo.
Lots has been on my mind lately! I’m thinking back to Rimsky-Korsakov’s adventurous Scheherazade, but also about the types of loud triumphant music played over the Fourth of July weekend. Music made popular by, well, pops orchestras. And then it dawned on me that I had yet to come anywhere close to our sweet friend Holst and his Planets.
Composed between 1914 and 1916, and finally premiering in 1920, Holst’s The Planets was a seven-movement orchestral suite about, uh, the planets. He was British; this stuff is always pretty straightforward with those folks. It wasn’t intended to be scientific, nor was it rooted in Roman mythology. This was purely astrological, which is why it felt essential to tell you that Holst is a Virgo. Of course this ought to start making sense now. He frequently consulted a book by astrologer Alan Leo (who was, yes, a Leo) called What Is A Horoscope And How Is It Cast? in order to subtitle each of the movements. And he did horoscopes for his friends! Extremely nice. And cool. I’m thrilled to announce that Gustav Holst is also now my friend. (I am an Aries — is that not clear?)
We’re going full Bernstein this week, using his 1969 recording. So, like any good horoscopes section, Holst’s Planets begins with Mars, the Bringer of War (or, you know, Aries). This is the most popular movement of the suite, and if you know any of them, it’s probably this one. It’s very prevalent in pop culture, see?
It’s got a deeply memorable militaristic drive to it. It opens with a droning clicking noise that may not sound like an instrument you’re familiar with, but it’s actually the string players hitting their strings with the wooden side of the bow. I played timpani on Mars, which was a fine thing, but with some distance, I’ve learned to really appreciate the strength and richness of the brass without having to constantly count out my own part. Mars is the only movement of The Planets I’ve played; like I said above, it tends to be isolated and played by younger orchestras or for bigger pops events. That’s fine, no doubt, but taking it out has always felt wrong. On one hand, I don’t think it’s significantly easier of a piece, and on the other hand, Mars is much less annoying (sorry!) when contextualized within the other planets.
Like Venus, the Bringer of Peace. This is the longest movement in The Planets and one of the most thoughtful and elegant. For all of Mars’s repetition, Venus feels much more broad in its sound. It begins quietly, thoughtfully, with the French horn. It takes time to establish itself, encroaching almost cautiously into the listener’s eardrums after the pounding melodrama of Mars. I’ve always been fond of the violin solo at the 2:17 mark and that melody that follows on the strings. It floats just on top of the orchestra with a lightness that somehow also has body and depth to it. It’s an antidote, truly, to the movement before it, and a cleansing balm going forward.
Mercury, the Winged Messenger is a straight-up goofy piece of music with some fucking crazy-ass wild percussion throughout. Remember when Hermes was voiced by Paul Shaffer in the Disney’s version of Hercules? Look, I know that’s Greek, and this isn’t that, or Roman, or scientific, but c’mon. Listen to this movement and tell me you don’t hear a little flying jazz band conductor. This sounds like Paul Shaffer without sunglasses.
Ah, and now we’ve come to the crème de la crème, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. There’s no official structure to a seven movement orchestral suite the way there is a sonata form to a symphony. But Holst said that The Planets were intended to mirror the stages of life, consider Jupiter prime adulthood A.K.A. feeling sad and weird on Friday nights and quitting your job. I love love love this movement. It is, to me, hands down the best. It does, in fact, bring jollity!! To me!! Even when it slows down a bit at the 3:04 mark, there’s an overwhelming heroism to the music. It’s deeply optimistic, summoning a joy from further within than the passive kind associated with Top 40 radio.
From here we enter something of a musical denouement in the fifth movement, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age. Isn’t that just how these things go, you’re spry and fun for a second and then you’re old as all heck? Saturn is an odd movement, a real dramatic shift. It’s certainly less memorable on its face: there are no big hooks to Saturn like there have been in past movements. It feels wise and old, troubled and conflicted. Its sound is more abstract than its prior movements, a big reminder, to me, that this is 20th-century music. It’s getting weirder. More modern. More troubled. Saturn really comes into itself right around the big crescendo right past the 4-minute mark. At 4:44, there’s an unsettling back and forth between the strings and brass and percussion. It sounds like a horror movie!
Uranus, the Magician follows with a big, brassy announcement of itself. The magician is here, folks. Please log the hell on. This is some Sorcerer’s Apprentice-sounding shit. There’s some xylophone here that would make our old friend Saint-Saëns proud. Uranus is exciting, a genuine thrill ride throughout. It’s letting Holst go full weird which, this late into the suite, honestly rules. It’s possible on this listening that you’ve taken the Planets very seriously. That’s fine, but please don’t forget this is a guy who used to read people’s horoscopes for fun and is a Virgo. You’re meant to enjoy this. It’s supposed to unsettle and amuse you.
The final movement of The Planets is Neptune, the Mystic. For those (nerds) demanding (like nerds do) to know where Pluto is, the answer is: Pluto wasn’t discovered yet. And so, the end of The Planets manages to feel inconclusive without even trying. Neptune is a sweeping and haunting finale. There’s a women’s choir that features throughout, representative, in my guess, of the mystic herself. It really does sound like an old-fashioned version of a ghost. You have expect there to be a creak of a hallway (maybe it’s just my apartment though). It’s hard to classify The Planets as a piece of music, impossible to nail to a particular mood or feeling or state of being. It ends with a fade out, something we’d view as a cop out these days, but for the time it was written, feels unresolved in a deeply artful way. Space is infinite, you know? And Holst is a Virgo. Don’t forget.