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The Planets, Op. 32, is a seven-movement orchestral suite by the English composer Gustav Holst, written between 1914 and 1916. Each movement of the suite is named after a planet of the Solar System and its corresponding astrological character as defined by Holst. With the exception of Earth (the centre of all yet influentially inert astrologically), all the astrological planets known during the work's composition are represented.
From its premiere to the present day, the suite has been enduringly popular, influential, widely performed and frequently recorded. The work was not heard in a complete public performance, however, until some years after it was completed. Although there were four performances between September 1918 and October 1920, they were all either private (the first performance, in London) or incomplete (two others in London and one in Birmingham). The premiere was at the Queen's Hall on 29 September 1918, conducted by Holst's friend Adrian Boult before an invited audience of about 250 people. The first complete public performance was finally given in London by Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra on 15 November 1920.
The concept of the work is astrological rather than astronomical (which is why Earth is not included): each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche, not the Roman deities. The idea of the work was suggested to Holst by Clifford Bax, who introduced him to astrology when the two were part of a small group of English artists holidaying in Majorca in the spring of 1913; Holst became quite a devotee of the subject, and liked to cast his friends' horoscopes for fun. Holst also used Alan Leo's book What is a Horoscope? as a springboard for his own ideas, as well as for the subtitles (i.e., "The Bringer of...") for the movements.
The Planets as a work in progress was originally scored for a piano duet, except for "Neptune", which was scored for a single organ, as Holst believed that the sound of the piano was too percussive for a world as mysterious and distant as Neptune. Holst then scored the suite for a large orchestra, and it was in this incarnation that it became enormously popular. Holst's use of orchestration was very imaginative and colourful, showing the influence of Arnold Schoenberg and other continental composers of the day rather than his English predecessors. The influence of the late Russian romantics such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov is also notable, as it is in Igor Stravinsky's great early ballets. Its novel sonorities helped make the work an immediate success with audiences at home and abroad. Although The Planets remains Holst's most popular work, the composer himself did not count it among his best creations and later in life complained that its popularity had completely surpassed his other works. He was, however, partial to his own favourite movement, "Saturn".
The orchestral premiere of The Planets suite, conducted at Holst's request by Adrian Boult, was held at short notice on 29 September 1918, during the last weeks of World War I, in the Queen's Hall with the financial support of Holst's friend and fellow composer H. Balfour Gardiner. It was hastily rehearsed; the musicians of the Queen's Hall Orchestra first saw the complicated music only two hours before the performance, and the choir for "Neptune" was recruited from pupils from St Paul's Girls' School (where Holst taught). It was a comparatively intimate affair, attended by around 250 invited associates, but Holst regarded it as the public premiere, inscribing Boult's copy of the score, "This copy is the property of Adrian Boult who first caused the Planets to shine in public and thereby earned the gratitude of Gustav Holst."
A public concert was given in London under the auspices of the Royal Philharmonic Society on 27 February 1919, conducted by Boult. Five of the seven movements were played in the order Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Uranus, and Jupiter. It was Boult's decision not to play all seven movements at this concert. He felt that when the public were being given a totally new language like that, "half an hour of it was as much as they could take in". The anonymous critic in Hazell's Annual called it "an extraordinarily complex and clever suite". At a Queen's Hall symphony concert on 22 November of that year, Holst conducted Venus, Mercury and Jupiter (this was the first public performance of Venus). There was another incomplete public performance, in Birmingham, on 10 October 1920, with five movements (Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter). It is not clear whether this performance was conducted by Appleby Matthews or the composer.
His daughter Imogen recalled, "He hated incomplete performances of The Planets, though on several occasions he had to agree to conduct three or four movements at Queen's Hall concerts. He particularly disliked having to finish with Jupiter, to make a 'happy ending', for, as he himself said, 'in the real world the end is not happy at all'".
The first complete performance of the suite at a public concert did not occur until 15 November 1920; the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) was conducted by Albert Coates. This was the first time the movement "Neptune" had been heard in a public performance, all the other movements having been given earlier public airings.
The composer conducted a complete performance for the first time on 13 October 1923, with the Queen's Hall Orchestra at a Promenade Concert. Holst conducted the LSO in two recorded performances of The Planets: the first was an acoustic recording made in sessions between 1922 and 1924 (now available on Pavilion Records' Pearl label); the second was made in 1926, and utilised the then-new electrical recording process (in 2003, this was released on compact disc by IMP and later on Naxos outside the United States). Because of the time constraints of the 78rpm format, the tempi are often much faster than is usually the case today.
The work is scored for an exceptionally large orchestra:
|This section may contain original research. (January 2013)|
A concert band arrangement of Mars, from The Planets, performed by the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band
A concert band arrangement of Venus, from The Planets, performed by the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band
Mercury, from The Planets, performed by the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band
Jupiter, from The Planets, performed by the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band
A concert band arrangement of Uranus, from The Planets, performed by the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band
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Holst's original title (clearly seen on the handwritten full score) was "Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra". The composer's name was given as 'Gustav von Holst' — by the time he wrote "Mercury" in 1916 he had dropped the 'von', for he signed the score of that movement separately as 'Gustav Holst'. The movements were called only by the second part of each title (I "The Bringer of War", II "The Bringer of Peace" and so on). The present titles were added in time for the first (incomplete) public performance in September 1919, though they were never added to the original score. It is perhaps instructive to realise Holst attended an early performance of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra in 1914 (the year he wrote "Mars", "Venus" and "Jupiter") and owned a score of it, the only Schoenberg score he ever owned.
A typical performance of all seven movements lasts for about fifty minutes though Holst's own electric recording from 1926 lasted just over forty-two and a half minutes. Some commentators have suggested that the ordering is structural, with the anomaly of Mars, Venus, Mercury, instead of the reverse, being a device to make the first four movements match the form of a symphony. An alternative explanation may be the ruling of astrological signs of the zodiac by the planets: if the signs are listed along with their ruling planets in the traditional order starting with Aries, ignoring duplication, Pluto (then undiscovered) and the luminaries (the Sun and Moon), the order of the movements corresponds. Another possibility, this time from an astronomical perspective, is that the first three movements, representing the inner terrestrial planets, are ordered by decreasing distance from the Sun; the remaining movements, representing the gas giants, are ordered by increasing distance from the Sun. Critic David Hurwitz offers an alternative explanation for the piece's structure: that "Jupiter" is the centrepoint of the suite and that the movements on either side are in mirror images. Thus "Mars" involves motion and "Neptune" is static; "Venus" is sublime while "Uranus" is vulgar, and "Mercury" is light and scherzando while "Saturn" is heavy and plodding. This hypothesis is lent credence by the fact that the two outer movements, "Mars" and "Neptune", are both written in rather unusual Quintuple meter.
A more prosaic explanation may simply be that Holst wrote the movements in the order they stand, with one exception, and that the only structural change was to place "Mercury" third. "Mars", "Venus" and "Jupiter" were from 1914, "Saturn", "Uranus" and "Neptune" from 1915 and "Mercury" from 1916. It has been speculated that "Mars" was a response to the outbreak of World War I, but Holst denied this, saying that "Mars" was completed before war was expected, and in August 1914 he was half-way through "Venus". Nevertheless, "Mars" is seen as prescient of mechanical warfare, something that was not a reality until after the entire suite was complete. Contrary to what is also sometimes said, Holst was not a pacifist but wanted to enlist as his friend Vaughan Williams did, but he was rejected as unfit: he suffered neuritis in his right arm—something that caused him to seek help from several amanuenses in scoring The Planets. This is clear from the number of different hands apparent in the full score.
"Neptune" was one of the first pieces of orchestral music to have a fade-out ending, although several composers (including Joseph Haydn in the finale of his Farewell Symphony) had achieved a similar effect by different means. Holst stipulates that the women's choruses are "to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed", and that the final bar (scored for choruses alone) is "to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance". Although commonplace today, the effect bewitched audiences in the era before widespread recorded sound—after the initial 1918 run-through, Holst's daughter Imogen (in addition to watching the charwomen dancing in the aisles during "Jupiter") remarked that the ending was "unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women's voices growing fainter and fainter... until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence".
Pluto was discovered in 1930, four years before Holst's death, and was hailed by astronomers as the ninth planet. Holst, however, expressed no interest in writing a movement for the new planet. He had become disillusioned by the popularity of the suite, believing that it took too much attention away from his other works.
In 2000, the Hallé Orchestra commissioned the English composer Colin Matthews, an authority on Holst, to write a new eighth movement, which he called "Pluto, the Renewer". Dedicated to the late Imogen Holst, Gustav Holst's daughter, it was first performed in Manchester on 11 May 2000, with Kent Nagano conducting the Hallé Orchestra. Matthews also changed the ending of "Neptune" slightly so that movement would lead directly into "Pluto".
Since the IAU no longer classifies Pluto as a planet, the work is again correct astronomically as it was at the time of its composition.
Holst himself adapted the melody of the central section of Jupiter in 1921 to fit the metre of a poem beginning "I vow to thee, my country". As a hymn tune it has the title Thaxted, after the town in Essex where Holst lived for many years, and it has also been used for other hymns, such as "O God beyond all praising".
"I Vow to Thee, My Country" was written between 1908 and 1918 by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice and became known as a response to the human cost of World War I. The hymn was first performed in 1925 and quickly became a patriotic anthem. Although Holst had no such patriotic intentions when he originally composed the music, these adaptations have encouraged others[who?] to draw upon the score in similar ways throughout the 20th Century.