Gustav Holsti’s Symphony Orchestra Suite
During the 1910’s, Holst was undoubtedly going through a period similar to a midlife crisis. His first large scale work, and opera called Sita failed to win a cash prize at a Ricordi composition competition and his other large works of the time, notably The Cloud Messenger and Beni Mora were premiered without great success. In March of 1913, Holst received an anonymous gift which enabled him to travel to Spain with Clifford Bax, the brother of the composer Arnold Bax (and later the librettist for Holst’s opera The Wandering Scholar). Clifford Bax was an astrologer, and he and Holst became good friends, with Bax introducing him to the concepts of astrology.
Perhaps due to this friendship, Holst began to rediscover his childhood intrigue with theosophy. He had a book in his library called, “The Art of Synthesis,” by Alan Leo. Leo was himself an astrologer and Theosophist who published various books on astrology, however if you look at “The Art of Synthesis,” each chapter is labeled with a heading, offering a precursor to how The Planets was constructed. Alan Leo divided his book into chapters based on each planet, and described the astrological characteristics of them. In fact, “Neptune, the Mystic,” is given the same title in both the book and the suite!
Holst called his piece “a series of mood pictures.” In actuality, this helps lead into other influences for this work. Before Holst started to compose The Planets, both Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky made trips to England and caused quite a stir. Schoenberg came to England and conducted his Five Orchestral Pieces Op. 18. Holst must have gone to this concert and been impressed, for Holst labeled the preliminary sketches of The Planets “Seven Orchestral Pieces.” Around the same time, Stravinsky came to England and conducted his Le sacre du printemps. Holst must have noticed this unconventional way to use the orchestra, because in the first movement, “Mars,” the blatant dissonance and unconventional meter seems to be riddled with the influence of Stravinsky.
Gustav Holst seemed to consider The Planets a progression of life. “Mars” perhaps serves as a rocky and tormenting beginning. In fact, some have called this movement the most devastaing piece of music ever written! “Venus” seems to provide an answer to “Mars,” it’s title as “the bringer of peace,” helps aid that claim. “Mercury” can be thought of as the messenger between our world and the other worlds. Perhaps “Jupiter” represents the “prime” of life, even with the overplayed central melody, which was later arranged to the words of “I vow to thee, my country.” “Saturn” can be viewed as indicative of Holst’s later mature style, and indeed it is recorded that Holst preferred this movement to all others in the suite. Through “Saturn” it can be said that old age is not always peaceful and happy. The movement may display the ongoing struggle for life against the odd supernatural forces. This notion mat be somewhat outlandish, but the music seems to lend credence to this. “Saturn” is followed by “Uranus, the Magician,” a quirky scherzo displaying a robust musical climax before the tranquility of the female choir in “Neptune” enchants the audience.
The piece displays that Holst was in touch with his musical contemporaries. There are obvious ideas borrowed from Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Debussy (the quality of”Neptune” resembles earlier Debussy piano music.) Holst never wrote another piece like The Planets again. He hated its popularity.
The Planets was first performed in a private concert in 1918 with Adrian Boult conducting. The first complete performance of the piece was under Albert Coates in Queen’s Hall in 1920.