Review Summary: The Planets Suite, could have easily been a god of its own. Epical orchestration, coupled with astrological elegance, shifts the music within the suite with a motion of liquidity.
During the darker times of pre-War England, British composer Gustav Holst
was toying with the scheme of producing a eulogy to the planets in a suite like form. Trying not to render a straightforward astronomical illustration of the planets themselves, Holst instead represents the mythical virtues that each possess in ancient Roman culture, part of the reason why Earth is not included as a piece. After some time he would begin sketching the rough ideas for the suite in 1914, beginning with Mars, the symbol for masculinity, but also war. For him, it was a step outside his comfort zone, as he was very much accustomed to composing for niche markets, having only composed pieces under commission – however within the seven tone poems, he demonstrates amazing compositional ability and understanding.
Influenced by the unfortunate initiation of World War I, Holst and his Mars
movement depict, through epical orchestration, a barren wasteland, filled with minefields, artillery shells, in unison with a majestical overshadowing motive. It is within the first instants of the movement that later film composers, such as Basil Poledouris
and John Williams
, were to become highly influenced by the warmongering barbaric sound when they went to compose themes for both Conan the Barbarian and Star Wars. After the barrage of brass climaxes and descents, three of them in total, the audience really are left disorientated amongst the still reverberant theme dwelling within their ears. It is here that Holst, under clever appreciation for his listeners’ stamina, introduces the exact opposite emotion within Venus
, suggesting the general accord that peace always prevails after war. Complementing the prevailing idea are gentle string sweeps and harmonic interconnections within the wind section. Tranquillity soon becomes the catalyst for emotion, as if one were to stroll along a beach, or lie within a field of soft grass. If, he had switched the two movements, and had authentically tried to replicate the natural positioning of the planets from the sun, then the ambition for the work would have been lost. Mars, and its mirror image Venus, are perhaps the most powerful of all introductory movements within 20th century musical repertoire.
Though Mars and Venus share a common musical appreciation, many find the following movement, Mercury
, odd within the context of the suite. It is light-hearted, comedic, and relatively “misplaced.” However, Mercury, the planet, was named because of its quick orbit around the sun, complementing the mythical winged messenger, who was a very speedy entity indeed. One can clearly envisage a petite winged messenger prancing around the other gods within the sonic value of the movement’s ascending pitter-patter of notes, especially through the cheeky timbre of the oboe and clarinet. Mercury, is more of an agitated prelude for the future Jupiter installment in that it offers a lighter touch (a rest) for the audience, rather than another nine minute epic dragged down by gravitation – it does in fact float above all other installments in terms of approach and joy.
The two outer gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, unlike Mercury, make up most of the planetary matter within our solar system; within the suite, they too share most of the musical matter, elegance and velocity. Jupiter
, the god of jollity, opens from the enduring notes of Mercury as if it were the six o’clock news, through a stately string introduction, then it moves thoughtfully into a well know English hymn tune, “Thaxed,” which is respected within the string section once again. Saturn
, the one of old age, on the other hand initiates motion of the darker outer planets through a very heavy and ponderous horn theme, which resides for most of the elderly related piece, only showing a possible resolution at its final and quiet edge.
, the magician, revives the sleep that is accomplished in the previous setting. It pays tribute to one of the most dubious chords in a lot of classical music, the diminished triad. It is within the first four notes that Holst introduces the most experimental of all the pieces explored thus far. Appearing as a magician would, the staggered crash reveals its musical path through a separation between the orchestral sections (horns/percussion), and a quirky melodic subject that is expressed with a patterned texture. From here, the music shifts capriciously into Neptune
, the mystic. Being of water origins, the movement voyages into an ocean of mystical consistency through the collective effort of the female chorus, finally, after all this time shows its position. The piece, after many dissonant string passages, and bisections of reminiscent harp arpeggios, gracefully fades in and out of audibility; in fact, Neptune originally was the first piece of music to have a fade out, whereby the female chorus were to be gently dismissed by the closing of a door in which they were located. Naturally, recording techniques of today day can replicate this idea, but in itself it shows Holst was the first to complete this desire through a simple technique.
Using a full orchestra is the best way to represent these great gods of excellence, and strange worlds of intrigue. Even though the suite was successfully composed on piano, the constraints within that instrument hindered the motion, and so Holst devoured all his common musical understandings and turned them into a suite of music that is so unfathomable that not even composers of the time such as Stravinsky
could equate with its value. The Planets Suite, for orchestra is a brilliant example of 20th century orchestral composition; a time where musical understanding was becoming more systematical with each new composer, Holst shows a musical maturity, and stubbornness to bridge the gap between the sublime dissonance of the late romantic era, and the ambience of the modernistic era, while remaining true to puristic classical techniques. While at times the epic nature of the music is dragged down by a force unequal to the motive, each installment respects its indispensable subject matter with the utmost sophistication and form… something that even the gods would have been humbled by.