The Planets Suite
by Gustav Holst

"As a rule I only study things that suggest music to me...Recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me."
~Gustav Holst, 1914

The Planets Suite was, by far, Holst's largest orchestral work--a suite of seven unique movements, lasting upwards of 50 minutes when performed.  Work on this composition of monumental scope began early in 1914 and was completed in 1916.  The first complete public performance of The Planets was held on November 15, 1920.  The suite's success was unrivalled , and has remained so to this day.  Surprisingly, Holst was most dismayed by the international popularity of The Planets--it was his first and only composition to reach such a wide audience, and he thought of it as very atypical of his composition style; not Holstian, and he regretted it.  He once wrote, "Every artist ought to pray that he may not be 'a success'."  It is sad that such a great work of art, loved the world over, was resented by its own creator to his dying day simply because it was "too good."

Any die-hard Holst fan realizes that The Planets is, in fact, uncharacteristic of Holst, yet it is still wonderful, and a tribute to the composer.  Ralph Vaughan Williams, Holst's best friend and fellow composer, once said that The Planets was "the perfect equillibrium" of Holst's nature--the melodic, precise, and structured, combined with the mystic and unexplainable.

The creativity used to write such a unique, one-of-a-kind piece is immeasurable.  Many of the movements, Mars and Saturn in particular, were the first of their kind anywhere--true originals.  Almost all of the movements have sparked other composers to do take-offs from them.  We hear several movements everyday in the form of  theme songs, on TV, movies, or the radio, even though we are unaware of them..


Mars, The Bringer of War
Venus, The Bringer of Peace
Mercury, The Winged Messanger
Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity
Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age
Uranus, The Magician
Neptune, The Mystic

The Planets #1 FAQ: "What about Pluto?!?"
This is almost always the first question asked about The Planets.  The reason there is not a movement dedicated to Pluto is that Pluto was not discovered until 1930, 14 years after the completion of the suite.  Holst died less than four years later, and never had a chance to write a movement to honor the newest found planet.

Name: Mars, The Bringer of War
Year Written: 1914
Order Composed: 1st
Tempo: allegro
Orchestral Highlights: The unmistakable 5/4 pounding rhythm
brass fanfare throughout
euphonium's melodic solo
grinding minor chords
Notes: Mars, obviously, is based on war.  The quiet but menacing 5/4 in the beginning symbolizes gathering troops and mounting tension.  When the full force of the fanfare is released, it is obviously symbolic of brutal war.  The baleful euphonium solo about a third of the way through tells the tale of a carefully planned attack from one side, which, for all its military excellence, is crushed.
Where have I heard it? -Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. 3, in Dark Land
-Star Wars' "Imperial March" is said to be one of many modern day take-offs of Mars

(MIDI File, 57 KB)

and HERE is an AU clip of Mars, (211 KB)

Name: Venus, The Bringer of Peace
Year Written: 1914
Order Composed: 2nd
Tempo: adagio
Orchestral Highlights: begins with French horn call which is answered by soft flutes
harp utilized well
hallmark violin solo in key of F#
warm oboe solo
Notes: A marked contrast from its preceding movement, Mars, Venus has an unmistakeable air of remote calm.  Utter placidness prevails, yet this movement is not without interesting melody or musical content.  It is quite lovely, and the fact that it follows violent and thunderous Mars only goes to highlight this further.

(MIDI File, 68.5 KB)

Name: Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Year Written: 1916
Order Composed: last, 7th
Tempo: vivace
Orchestral Highlights: the fleet scherzo nature, and staccato in strings and woodwinds
trio section
contrabasson lick at end
Notes: This, the shortest movement of the suite, is said to represent a fleet-footed, happy messanger--in this case, it is said that Mercury is carrying a message from Scheherazade.


Name: Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity
Year Written: 1914
Order Composed: 3rd
Tempo: allegro giocoso/andante maestoso
Orchestral Highlights: large horn opening
rocketing scales in upper woodwinds
brass fanfare
gorgeous ballad section in the middle (andante maestoso)
the bass to upper winds transition at the coda
Notes: Jupiter is the most well-known and most popular of all the movements.  It has an overall air of grand importance and the jolly feel is highlighted because of the C major chord in which it is written.  It is almost as if Jupiter knows that he's above all else, and has no need to prove it.
Where have I heard it? -Jupitor has inspired many patriotic hymns in both England and America
-It is National Geographic's TV theme song

**NOTE:  I think that the tempo of this MIDI is a little too slow!

Name: Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age
Year Written: 1915
Order Composed: 4th
Tempo: adagio
first 26 measures of painful sounding, syncopated chords in harp and flute
menacing theme underneath chords in first 26 bars, played by double basses
stately trombone march after 26 measure intro
l-o-n-g crescendo to climax, leading to an irresolute coda
all instruments used to create chime effect in middle 
Notes: This was the composer's personal favorite movement, and was by far the most original.  (It is also my favorite.)  The pain of Holst's severe neuritis is symbolized my the jerky, labored, grinding chords in the famous opening passage.  An overall theme of pain, despair, and inevitability is felt up until the unusual character switch at the coda to acceptance.  It's weird.


Name: Uranus, The Magician
Year Written: 1915
Order Composed: 5th
Tempo: allegro
huge trombone/trumpet opening
staccato "creeping" melody of bassoon/tuba/xylophone
again, chime affect over main melody
regimental march heard throughout
Notes: Uranus is an initially deceptive piece: it begins with hard, loud, spooky chords which leave one suspecting an overall minor, spooky song.  Instead, Uranus changes character into that of a humerous, merry, prancing tune.  Of course, it often diverts briefly back to its original character of spookery.  It tells the story of a wacky magician, whose family tree goes back to the Beriloz witches themselves.  In this story, his apprentice tries to take control and is quickly put back in his place through creepy magic. 
Where have I heard it? -Disney's Fantasai (where Mickey is the humble apprentice)
-South Park episode (where Mr. Hankey saves the town from Hollywood actors)


Name: Neptune, The Mystic
Year Written: 1915
Order Composed: 6th
Tempo: andante
Orchestral Highlights: women's choir chords underneath orchestra
obvious Ravel influence
long, indiscriminate melody--delicately scored
Notes: This whole movement seems like it could very well be a call from the distant planet itself.  It is a beautiful pianissimo piece, very eerie and unsettling.  The wordless song of the women's choir catches and hypnotizes the listener.  This was Holst's best friend's (Ralph Vaughen Williams) favorite movement.  Neptunian influence can be heard in many of RVW's later charts.  It is a wonderful finale for this grand suite, as it leaves the listener yearning for more, in a definite state of unrest.  It does not give you the typical, fan-fare triumphant finale that you want.  This is another of the many reasons why this suite is so orginal.



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