Holst – The Planet Suite

GUSTAV HOLST (1874-1934)



Most people are familiar, perhaps over familiar, with the Planets that we can have forgotten the thrill and impact of coming to this work for the first time. Nowadays it is part of the daily diet on Classic FM to have Mars for breakfast, Venus for elevenses and Jupiter to cheer up the odd lorry driver on the M6. For many in the Matthew Taylor Class that first acquaintance would have probably been back in the 1950’s when chauvinistically the only recognized conductors, Boult, Sargent and Barbirolli, had to be English and that foreign conductors, particularly immigrants to America like Stokowski, were thought of as off limits.

Gustav Holst, or von Holst to begin with, was of Latvian via Swedish descent, but that is by the bye. He was born in Cheltenham and was as English as steak and kidney pie, not that he would, as a practising vegetarian, have eaten it. After education at Cheltenham Grammar School he entered the Royal College of Music where he studied under Stanford and became a lifelong friend of fellow student Ralph Vaughan-Williams. The two men developed a shared interest in exploring and maintaining the English vocal and choral tradition as found primarily in folk song, madrigals and church music.   Because of a trembling hand he gave up the piano and studied the trombone which he later played in the orchestra pit of the Carl Rosa Opera company to earn his living. Much of his time was given to teaching. He was for several years the music teacher at James Allen Girls School in Dulwich and later at St Pauls Girls School in Hammersmith for which he wrote his delightful St Paul Suite for Strings. He also became director of Music at Morley College, a position which he held until his death. He was succeeded there by Michael Tippett.

He was possessed at different times of various, sometimes eccentric, fads. He shared his vegetarianism and socialism with George Bernard Shaw and the latter pursuit also with William Morris. He was an avid hiker and biker taking his biking holidays as far off as Algeria and from whence came the inspiration for his brilliant orchestral oriental suite, Beni Mora. His other somewhat individual pursuit was an interest in Hindu mysticism and Sanskrit. He wrote operas based on these themes and signed up for a course at the cost of 5 guineas at UCL to study Sanskrit in order that he could translate the originals to write his libretti. Later in life he became friendly with Thomas Hardy and he regarded Egdon Heath, a bleak composition, as his greatest orchestral work. Holst was a lovable oddball whose statue in Cheltenham shows him as a one off left handed conductor.

As a composer, Holst had a considerable output of some 200 works although only a handful have found their way on to the CD shelves. He was a self-confessed traditionalist but there is no doubt he was influenced by the barbaric rhythms of Stravinky’s Rite of Spring, the score of which he presumably studied as it was not performed in England until 1922, and also of the chromaticisms of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces which Henry J Wood was daring enough to introduce to the Proms audience in 1911 and was hissed for his troubles.

At the onset of World War I, Holst tried to enlist but was rejected because of his bad eyes, bad lungs and bad digestion. In wartime England, Holst was persuaded to drop the “von” from his name, as it aroused suspicion. He changed his name by deed poll in 1917. It was shortly before the war that he holidayed in Spain with the Bax brothers, Arnold, (composer) and Clifford, (playwright). It was Clifford who came to introduce Holst to astrology. From then on, Holst practised telling astrological fortunes which he called his pet vice. It was therefore thanks to Clifford Bax that the Planets came to be written. They were to be based on Holst’s astrological view of the character of the planets and not to be confused with the classical gods. There are seven planets in all excluding Earth and also Pluto which had not yet then been discovered

The Suite was in fact started before the war. Matthew Taylor, in his 1910-14 series, played us a two piano score of Mars written by Holst to be played at St Pauls GS. The complete work received its first performance at a private performance under Boult in 1918 but the first public performance did not take place until 1920 under the baton of Albert Coates. Little wonder that most people have erroneously perceived Mars as a reflection of the carnage of the mechanized First World War. We do not know what Holst saw in his mind’s eye but it would appear as if he was possessed of one of the most prophetic of visions. Or could Holst’s newly acquired interest in stargazing have produced for him the fortune telling ability to which he laid claim?

  1. Mars – The Bringer of War. The word that best describes the opening is ominous. You know straight away that something is about to happen. The unusual 5/4 rhythm that underlines Holst’s trombones is relentless, never changing, except as to its speed. Quietly to start with, regular if uneven, it soon builds up to nearly the whole orchestra hammering out the rhythm. This is followed by brass from horns to tubas and trumpets chasing each other with martial calls. Eventually it all collapses on itself and a middle section continues at about a quarter of the original speed like some awakening giant trying to rouse itself. This leads to the whole orchestra hammering away again with greater insistence until a discordant climax is hammered out. There cannot be life beyond this.

  1. Venus – The Bringer of Peace. (Not the Goddess of Love!). The contrast with Mars could not be greater. Holst had become influenced by Ravel through V-W but the sound here is impressionistic, more Debussy influenced. This is a movement of tranquillity underscored not by melodies as by chords, not accompanying but with a life of their own, simply hanging in their own space.

  1. Mercury – The Winged Messenger. Yet another contrast. From the languorous pace of Venus we have a fleet footed Mercury, lightly scored, scurrying round the orchestra from winds to strings. There develops a tune in the strings that has a slight folksy feel for a short time before the movement scampers into thin air.

  1. Jupiter – The Bringer of Jollity. This is somewhat uneven. The humour is rumbustious evoking a Falstaffian feel. Here Holst is somewhat heavy handed in his orchestration. The second part becomes a round where the dance is stamped out faster and louder and once too often perhaps. We then reach the middle section which has nothing much to do with jollity. It is very British, very hymn like which is why it became to be recast as “I Vow to Thee, My Country”, redolent of morning assembly at most British public schools. The jovial mood is then recapitulated and the two briefly entwine in a final national peroration. Popular it may be, but not Holst at his best.

  1. Saturn – The Bringer of Old Age. This movement is tighter knit altogether. Old age drags itself wearily on woods and harps with basses dragging their feet below. Here the feel is distinctly Sibelian. Did Vaughan Williams have this section in mind when he depicted the Beardmore Glacier in his Sinfonia Antarctica? The music builds to a mighty climax re-enforced by the organ. This is old age containing enormous reserves of energy. As it sinks back the organ comes in and there follows a sublime luxuriant finale undoubtedly influenced in its orchestration by Daybreak from Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe.

  1. Uranus – The Magician. If the Planets were a seven movement symphony, Uranus would be the scherzo. This note would not be the first to draw a similarity to Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice although it is unlikely that Holst had heard it. The music is jokey with a prominent part for the tuba. Another mighty climax is followed from an unbelievable fffff to The change is so swift and sudden that Malcolm Sargent related a tale, probably apocryphal, of two women in the audience talking to each other above the din and as it cut off precipitately into near silence one heard distinctly the words “Oh I always cook mine in fat”.

  1. Neptune – The Mystic. The music is scored with seven beats to the bar. It is quiet, and shapeless like some void in space. Like gas clouds it contains no climaxes, no noises. Ultimately from offstage a chorus of women’s voices intermingles high up in the orchestra adding a further mysterious layer. Debussy had used a wordless women’s chorus in Sirènes, the third of his orchestral Nocturnes but this is different. This is a sound that is ethereal and which becomes lost within the orchestra. It eventually fades into nothing, an effect obtained by slowly closing the door of the off stage room. Again one asks whether V-W was conscious of the similarities between this and the finale of his sixth symphony.

The Planets is a great work despite it being uneven. Like Ravel’s Bolero it suffers from over recording and broadcast and is probably, like Bolero, best appreciated in the concert hall where even the coughing can’t always be heard!


This Note was composed for the Blackheath Music Appreciation Society and copyright is claimed by Lionel J Lewis