Conducted by Maciej Tarnowsky, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra & Female Choir perform The Planets, Op. 32, a seven-movement orchestral suite by the English composer Gustav Holst. This performance was recorded at the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall on November 27, 2015.
Gustav Holst’s The Planets
Gustav Holst’s “The Planets, Op. 32,” is an orchestral suite that stands as one of the most influential and enduring pieces in the Western classical repertoire. Composed between 1914 and 1917, this work represents a significant departure from Holst’s earlier compositions, both in its scale and its innovative approach to orchestration and thematic development.
“The Planets” is often celebrated for its imaginative representation of the astrological characters of the planets in our solar system, excluding Earth and Pluto (which had not been discovered when Holst composed the suite, Pluto was discovered in 1930). Each planet is depicted with a distinct musical character that reflects Holst’s interpretation of its astrological significance, rather than its astronomical properties. This approach makes the suite a unique fusion of modernism, mysticism, and the late Romantic orchestral tradition.
One of the most striking aspects of “The Planets” is Holst’s masterful and innovative use of orchestration. He employs a large orchestra, with a wide range of instruments, to create vivid soundscapes that bring each planet’s character to life. The orchestration is not only grand in scale but also intricate in detail, showcasing Holst’s ability to extract a wide palette of colors and textures from the ensemble.
Holst’s skillful handling of harmony and melody in “The Planets” contributes significantly to its lasting appeal. He combines traditional harmonic language with more modern, sometimes dissonant harmonies, creating a sound that is both accessible and forward-looking. The thematic material in the suite is memorable and often powerful, ranging from the majestic and warlike to the ethereal and mystical.
The suite also showcases Holst’s interest in mysticism and astrology. Each movement is intended to convey the influence of the planets on the human psyche, rather than any physical attributes or mythological associations. This astrological focus is reflected in the mood and character of each movement, which varies widely across the suite, from the intense and driving to the serene and contemplative.
“The Planets” was composed during a turbulent period in Holst’s life and history, amidst the backdrop of World War I. Some scholars suggest that the tumultuous events of the time influenced the composition, particularly in its more dramatic and intense moments. The suite, however, transcends its historical context, speaking to universal themes and emotions.
Since its premiere, “The Planets” has gained immense popularity and has been influential in both classical and popular music. Its themes have been echoed in film scores, and its innovative orchestration has inspired generations of composers. The suite remains a staple of the orchestral repertoire and continues to be widely performed and recorded.
With start times in the video:
- [00:35] Mars, the Bringer of War
- [08:13] Venus, the Bringer of Peace
- [17:57] Mercury, the Winged Messenger
- [22:33] Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
- [25:42] I Vow To Thee My Country (a British patriotic hymn, created in 1921 when music by Gustav Holst had a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice set to it. The music originated as a wordless melody, which Holst later named “Thaxted”, taken from the “Jupiter” movement of Holst’s 1917 suite The Planets.)
- [31:20] Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
- [41:11] Uranus, the Magician
- [47:08] Neptune, the Mystic
1. Mars, the Bringer of War
“Mars, the Bringer of War” is the first movement of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets, Op. 32,” and it is one of the most striking and powerful pieces in the orchestral repertoire. Composed during the onset of World War I, this movement is often interpreted as a portrayal of the horrors and chaos of war, although Holst himself did not explicitly state this as his intention.
The movement opens with a relentless, rhythmic pattern in 5/4 time, a time signature that was quite unusual for the era and contributes to the sense of unease and agitation. This rhythm, played by the strings, sets a martial and ominous tone that pervades the entire movement. The choice of 5/4 time gives the music a driving and relentless quality, as it avoids the more predictable patterns of traditional time signatures.
Over this rhythmic foundation, Holst layers a series of dissonant and menacing themes. The brass section, particularly the trumpets and trombones, plays a crucial role in establishing the movement’s aggressive and foreboding character. Their fanfares are martial and harsh, evoking images of warfare and destruction.
The orchestration in “Mars” is both innovative and powerful. Holst employs a large orchestra, including an expanded percussion section with instruments like bass drums and timpani, which he uses to great effect to amplify the sense of conflict and turmoil. The dynamics of the piece vary, building to intense climaxes that are both overwhelming and deeply impactful.
As the movement progresses, the tension and sense of doom escalate. Holst masterfully manipulates the orchestral forces at his disposal, creating layers of sound that interact and clash, mirroring the chaos of battle. The use of dissonance is particularly noteworthy; it adds to the unsettling and aggressive atmosphere of the piece.
“Mars” does not follow a traditional melodic structure; instead, it relies on its rhythmic drive and textural changes to convey its message. The absence of a clear, singable melody contributes to the feeling that this is not a glorification of war, but rather a portrayal of its brutal and relentless nature.
The movement concludes with a powerful and unsettling climax, leaving the listener with a sense of unresolved tension and unease. This ending is effective in conveying the sense that the themes of war and conflict are ongoing and unresolved, a reflection of the uncertainties of the time in which it was composed.
“Mars, the Bringer of War” is often celebrated for its groundbreaking approach to rhythm and orchestration, and its vivid portrayal of its subject matter. It is a powerful opening to “The Planets” suite and has left a lasting impact on the orchestral repertoire.
2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
“Venus, the Bringer of Peace” is the second movement of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets, Op. 32.” This movement presents a stark contrast to the preceding “Mars, the Bringer of War,” both in tone and musical character. While “Mars” is aggressive and turbulent, “Venus” exudes a sense of calm, serenity, and beauty, embodying the astrological attributes traditionally associated with the planet Venus.
The movement opens with a gentle and lyrical melody that sets a peaceful and tranquil tone. This opening is characterized by soft dynamics and a delicate orchestration, creating an atmosphere of serenity and contemplation. The use of solo instruments, particularly the violin and horn, in the beginning, adds a personal, intimate quality to the music.
Throughout “Venus,” Holst demonstrates his mastery of orchestration and his ability to create varied textures and colors. The orchestration is much lighter and more transparent than in “Mars,” with a focus on woodwinds, harps, and strings, which contribute to the movement’s ethereal and soothing character. The use of flutes, oboes, and clarinets in particular adds a soft, lyrical quality to the music.
The harmonic language of “Venus” is rich and lush, with Holst employing a palette of gentle dissonances and extended chords to create a sense of otherworldly beauty. The movement is not without its moments of tension and release, but these are subtle and serve to enhance the overall sense of peace and tranquility.
Rhythmically, “Venus” is much more fluid and less driven than “Mars.” The absence of a strong, driving rhythm allows the melodies to flow freely, further contributing to the peaceful atmosphere. The tempo is slow and measured, allowing the listener to fully absorb the beauty and calmness of the music.
One of the striking aspects of “Venus” is its sense of spaciousness and expansiveness. Holst creates a musical landscape that seems to stretch out infinitely, evoking the vastness of space and the serene beauty of the heavens. This sense of space is achieved through the use of sustained notes, gentle dynamics, and the careful placement of silences within the music.
The movement concludes quietly and peacefully, fading away into silence. This ending reinforces the sense of calm and serenity that permeates the movement and leaves the listener with a feeling of tranquil contemplation.
“Venus, the Bringer of Peace” is a masterful demonstration of Holst’s ability to paint vivid musical pictures and evoke deep emotional responses. It serves as a beautiful and serene counterpoint to the rest of “The Planets” suite and is a testament to the composer’s skill and imagination.
3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” is the third movement of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets, Op. 32.” This movement is characterized by its lightness, speed, and agility, qualities that musically represent Mercury, the swift messenger of the gods in Roman mythology. Holst’s composition here is a vivid sonic portrayal of Mercury’s fleet-footedness and vibrant energy.
The movement opens with a lively and fluttering melody that immediately evokes the image of quick, fleeting motion. This sense of speed and agility is a central feature of the movement, reflected in the rapid passages and nimble interplay between various sections of the orchestra. The use of staccato notes and quicksilver runs further enhances the impression of rapid movement and ethereal agility.
In “Mercury,” Holst employs a lighter orchestration compared to the previous movements, with a particular emphasis on high-pitched instruments like flutes, violins, and glockenspiel. This choice of instrumentation contributes to the airy and effervescent quality of the music, perfectly embodying the movement’s titular character.
The harmonic language in this movement is also notable for its fluidity and subtlety. Holst makes use of shifting tonal centers and quick modulations to create a sense of constant motion and change. This harmonic restlessness mirrors Mercury’s swift and unpredictable nature, never staying in one place for too long.
Rhythmically, “Mercury” is intricate and dynamic. Holst employs irregular and syncopated rhythms to convey a sense of spontaneity and capriciousness. The tempo is brisk, with rhythms that seem to dart and weave, much like the quick movements of a messenger darting through the heavens.
One of the most distinctive features of “Mercury” is its texture. Holst masterfully weaves together multiple musical lines, creating a tapestry of sound that is both complex and transparent. This contrapuntal approach allows different melodies and motifs to intertwine, suggesting the intertwining paths of celestial orbits or the swift, crisscrossing routes of a celestial messenger.
The movement is relatively short, adding to its feeling of fleetingness and ephemeral charm. It concludes as swiftly as it began, leaving the listener with a sense of having experienced a brief, exhilarating flight through the skies.
4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” is the fourth movement of Gustav Holst’s suite “The Planets, Op. 32.” This movement is often celebrated as one of the most beloved and exuberant segments of the suite, embodying the joyous and grandiose characteristics traditionally associated with Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods.
The movement starts with a robust and energetic theme that immediately sets a tone of grandeur and exuberance. This opening theme is characterized by its full, rich orchestration and a buoyant rhythm that conveys a sense of majesty and celebration. Holst uses the full power of the orchestra to create a sound that is both expansive and uplifting, with brass and percussion playing prominent roles.
Throughout “Jupiter,” Holst demonstrates a masterful control of orchestration, creating layers of sound that are both complex and coherent. The use of brass instruments, particularly trumpets and trombones, adds to the movement’s regal and jubilant character. The woodwinds and strings weave in and out of the texture, adding color and dynamism to the music.
One of the most notable features of “Jupiter” is its central melody, often referred to as the “Jupiter” theme. This theme, which appears after the initial energetic section, is marked by its noble and stately character. It is a melody of great beauty and dignity, often interpreted as a hymn-like or anthem-like passage. This theme has become one of Holst’s most famous and enduring melodies, admired for its lyrical beauty and emotional depth.
The harmonic language in “Jupiter” is rich and varied, with Holst using a wide range of chords and modulations to create a sense of grandeur and expansiveness. The movement transitions through different moods and textures, from the exuberant opening to the more reflective central section, and then back to the festive spirit of the beginning.
Rhythmically, “Jupiter” is characterized by its vitality and drive. The use of varying rhythms, including some syncopation and the interplay of different rhythmic patterns, adds to the joyful and celebratory nature of the movement.
Towards the end of “Jupiter,” the music builds to a grand and triumphant climax, with the orchestra coming together in a powerful and uplifting finale. This concluding section reinforces the movement’s overall sense of joy and jubilation, leaving the listener with a feeling of exhilaration and awe.
“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” with its vivid orchestration, memorable melodies, and uplifting character, is a testament to Holst’s compositional skill and his ability to convey emotion through music. It stands as a high point in “The Planets” suite and remains a favorite among audiences for its infectious energy and grandeur.
5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” is the fifth movement in Gustav Holst’s suite “The Planets, Op. 32.” This movement stands out for its stark contrast to the preceding movements, particularly “Jupiter.” In “Saturn,” Holst explores themes of aging, time, and the inevitable progression towards an end, evoking a sense of solemnity, introspection, and ultimately, acceptance.
The movement begins with a slow, steady, and inexorable march-like rhythm that immediately sets a tone of gravity and inevitability. This rhythm, often carried by lower strings and harp, is suggestive of the unrelenting march of time. The tempo and rhythm are crucial in this movement, as they convey the steady, relentless approach of old age.
Holst’s orchestration in “Saturn” is characterized by its restraint and depth. The use of quieter, more somber tones, such as lower brass, woodwinds, and strings, contributes to the movement’s meditative and reflective quality. The orchestration gradually builds in intensity, adding layers of sound that create a sense of growing weight and solemnity.
The harmonic language of “Saturn” is rich and complex. Holst employs dissonances and unresolved chords to create a sense of unease and contemplation. These harmonies evoke the complexities and often the discomforts associated with aging and the passage of time. The movement does not resolve these tensions quickly, instead, it allows them to linger, reflecting the often unresolved nature of life’s later stages.
A notable feature of “Saturn” is its dynamic range and the gradual build-up to a climactic moment. This climax is powerful and overwhelming, representing perhaps the pinnacle of life’s struggles or the ultimate confrontation with mortality. Following this climax, the music subsides into a more tranquil and resigned conclusion, suggesting acceptance and a sense of peace with the inevitable.
The mood of “Saturn” is one of contemplation and introspection. It invites the listener to reflect on the passage of time, the process of aging, and the acceptance of life’s final stages. The movement progresses from a sense of weight and burden to a more serene and peaceful acceptance, mirroring the journey from the struggles of aging to the tranquility of acceptance.
6. Uranus, the Magician
“Uranus, the Magician” is the sixth movement of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets, Op. 32.” In this movement, Holst conjures an image of Uranus as a mysterious and powerful magician, creating a piece that is whimsical, bold, and somewhat ominous in character. The music reflects the mythical and astrological associations of Uranus with sudden change, innovation, and the enigmatic.
The movement begins with a bold and dramatic theme, characterized by a strong, rhythmic motif that immediately establishes a sense of mystery and power. This opening, with its striking orchestration, sets the stage for a portrayal of Uranus as a figure of grandeur and magical prowess. The use of a full orchestral palette, including brass, percussion, and woodwinds, contributes to the commanding and somewhat theatrical atmosphere.
Holst’s orchestration in “Uranus” is notable for its vividness and variety. He skillfully employs the different sections of the orchestra to create a series of contrasting textures and colors, evoking the capricious and unpredictable nature of a magician. The brass section, in particular, plays a significant role in establishing the movement’s imposing character.
Harmonically, “Uranus” is adventurous and dynamic. Holst makes use of dissonant chords and unexpected harmonic shifts, creating a sense of surprise and unpredictability. These harmonic choices mirror the magical and changeable qualities attributed to Uranus, both in astrology and mythology.
The rhythmic elements of “Uranus” are particularly striking. Holst employs a variety of rhythms to drive the movement forward, creating a sense of urgency and excitement. The use of syncopation and irregular accents adds to the feeling of unpredictability and whimsy.
As the movement progresses, it goes through various moods and textures, from the commanding opening to more playful and mischievous sections. These changes in mood reflect the multifaceted nature of Uranus as a symbol of both power and trickery. The orchestration and thematic material are full of contrasts, with moments of grandeur juxtaposed with lighter, more capricious passages.
Towards the end, “Uranus” builds to a climactic conclusion, with the orchestra coming together in a powerful and dramatic finale. This ending reinforces the movement’s overall sense of might and mystery, leaving the listener with an impression of Uranus’s enigmatic and powerful character.
7. Neptune, the Mystic
“Neptune, the Mystic” is the seventh and final movement of Gustav Holst’s suite “The Planets, Op. 32.” This movement is distinct from the others in its ethereal, otherworldly character, capturing the essence of Neptune as a mysterious and distant entity. Holst’s composition for “Neptune” is a groundbreaking and innovative piece, especially notable for its use of a wordless, offstage women’s chorus, adding to the movement’s mystique and sense of the unknown.
The movement begins with a soft, delicate texture, featuring a blend of muted strings and gentle woodwind melodies. This creates an atmosphere of tranquility and mystery, evoking the vast and remote nature of space. The use of subtle dynamics and a restrained orchestral palette is key to establishing the movement’s dreamlike quality.
One of the defining features of “Neptune” is its harmonic ambiguity. Holst employs lush, extended chords and unresolved progressions, creating a sense of floating or drifting through space. The harmonies are elusive and enigmatic, perfectly capturing the mystical and intangible qualities associated with the planet Neptune.
The tempo in this movement is slow and flowing, further enhancing the sensation of weightlessness and timelessness. The rhythms are subtle and often obscured, with the melodic lines flowing seamlessly into one another, creating a continuous tapestry of sound.
As the movement progresses, the wordless chorus gradually emerges, blending seamlessly with the orchestral texture. The use of the chorus is innovative and strikingly effective, creating an otherworldly sound that seems to emanate from beyond the orchestra. The voices add an ethereal dimension to the music, heightening the sense of mystery and transcendence.
Holst’s orchestration in “Neptune” is masterful, with each instrument contributing to the overall sense of serenity and depth. The use of harps and glockenspiel adds a shimmering quality to the texture, while the flutes and other woodwinds provide a sense of fluidity and motion.
The conclusion of “Neptune” is one of the most remarkable aspects of the movement. Rather than ending with a traditional finale, the movement fades into silence, with the chorus diminishing into nothingness. This creates a sense of the music disappearing into the vastness of space, leaving the listener with a feeling of awe and wonder.
“Neptune, the Mystic” is a sublime and innovative piece, showcasing Holst’s ability to push the boundaries of orchestral music. It serves as a fitting conclusion to “The Planets” suite, leaving the listener with a sense of the vastness and mystery of the universe.
- The Planets on Wikipedia
- The Planets, Op.32 (Holst, Gustav) on the International Music Score Library Project website
- Villa-Lobos: Guitar Concerto [Paulo Martelli] - February 20, 2024
- Schubert: Piano Trio No. 2 [Bezuidenhout, Faust, Eberle] - February 19, 2024
- Schumann: Piano Concerto [Martha Argerich, Zubin Mehta] - February 18, 2024