Holst's The Planets
This Omaha Symphony performance was recorded live at the Holland Performing Arts Center on May 11, 2018.
Giant work, giant orchestra
Though one might expect a calculated, scientific approach to a work about our solar system, this piece is less astronomy and more astrology—Holst's 1918 work paints a multi-movement portrayal of personalities associated with the planets in popular astrology and Greek and Roman mythology. The result is music that is larger than life, music that lifts us out of the mundane—even over a hundred years after it was written.
There are pieces in the repertoire that are so epic, so exuberant, at points so extremely difficult and yet so satisfying to perform, that it seems incredible that anyone should be unmoved by them. They become bucket list pieces, warhorses, music that is unapologetically “borrowed” and universally recognized.
Enter Gustav Holst’s The Planets, to whom we owe the shuddering, thrilling fear of Star Wars’ Darth Vader at the very, very least. Requiring a monstrously-sized orchestra, a secret women’s choir (we’ll get to that in a bit), and yet absolutely no explanation once the music gets going, it’s one of the most popular pieces in the classical repertoire.
Ironically, it was *not* Holst’s personal favorite among his own compositions. He was apparently perplexed and slightly irritated that it overshadowed the rest of his work… but would at least admit that he was very “partial” to Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age. (On a personal note, it’s interesting that he gravitated towards the most spine-tingling, dread-inducing movement in the work. Holst, you okay buddy? Having a slight existential crisis?)
If this is your first time listening to The Planets, you will, 1, absolutely recognize a lot of this fantastic music, and 2, enjoy it immensely. Two things to note: first, Holst’s compositional rule for the set was to compose movements only for planets that he could see with a telescope. Hence, no Earth, and no Pluto (which wouldn’t be discovered until 1930.) Second, despite the feelings you may get while listening and reading the titles, Holst was thinking astrologically – how the movement of the planets affected us here on Earth. Any commonalities with the Roman gods and goddesses of the same names are purely coincidental, which is a heck of a disclaimer. In order, you’ll hear:
1. Mars, the Bringer of War – the string section is using col legno technique (lightly hitting the wood of their bows against their strings), which adds to the military feel of this gargantuan build towards an explosive conclusion. John Williams owes Holst a thank you note.
2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace – a lovely feature for solo violin and harp, as well as a chance to get our pulses under control.
3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger – faster than a flying Snitch and wreaking similar havoc!
4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity – if there were an audio-clip dictionary, this would be the example next to “majestic” and also “perfect”.
5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age – time waits for no man during this incredible, haunting movement.
6. Uranus, the Magician – did you know that Uranus was the zaniest planet in the solar system? It’s a low-brass versus high-winds moment, and is delightful.
7. Neptune, the Mystic – we’re allowed to calm down now that we’re out in deep space, with nothing but the beautiful yet eerie soft movement in strings, winds, and secret women’s choir gently fading away. The women’s choir, off stage and patiently waiting until this moment, is a lovely touch to the musical color, singing no words but a single syllable as we go gently into the night.
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