Gustav Holst
The Planets

Born: 21 September 1874, in Cheltenham
Died: 25 May 1934, in London

{Biography} {The Planets} {Other Music}


Holst came from a musical family going back to his great-grandfather Matthias (1769–1854), who was a composer, pianist, and harpist at the imperial Russian court.  Holst’s grandfather was a musician as well (piano and harp), and his father taught piano and organ (his mother was a singer and pianist, but she died when Holst was 8).  The musical tradition continued with Holst’s daughter, Imogen (1907–1984), a composer, conductor, and writer (author of three books on her father), but the tradition ended there, as she was childless.

Holst was taught piano by his father and became the organist and choirmaster in the village of Wyck Rissington at the age of 17—thus, choral music was part of his professional life from the very beginning (he also played violin).  After studying counterpoint at Oxford, he was off to the Royal College of Music in 1893, remaining there until 1898 and working with composers Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry.  He saved his student manuscripts, bundling them up and labelling them “Early Horrors.”

His cohort at the RCM included John Ireland, Frank Bridge (Britten’s teacher), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and especially Ralph Vaughan Williams, his lifelong friend and a fellow enthusiast of English folk music.  He became a member of the Hammersmith Socialist Society (fellow members included William Morris and George Bernard Shaw; Holst was given a proof page from Morris’s famous Kelmscott Chaucer that he kept all his life).  Eventually Holst was asked to become the conductor of the newly-created Hammersmith Socialist Choir, whose rehearsals took place in Morris’s house.  A surviving concert program includes Morley, Purcell, Mozart, Wagner, and a work by Holst himself.  Conducting the choir was personally as well as professionally rewarding, for he was to marry one of the sopranos.

As for other musical studies besides composition, a life-long physical problem with his arm meant that a career as a concert pianist was not going to happen, so he took up trombone and acquired professional proficiency (and, of course, learned about orchestration from the inside of the ensemble).  After leaving the RCM he played in the Carl Rosa Opera Company (1898–1900; he was also répétiteur), the Scottish Orchestra (1900–1903; now the Royal Scottish National Orchestra), and the White Viennese Band, whose members were required to speak in fake foreign accents for the sake of “authenticity.”  Once Holst began his teaching career, he put aside the trombone until decades later, when he played in a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols at St. Paul’s Girls School, where he was teaching.

In 1903 Holst began teaching at the James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich (southeast London; he succeeded Vaughan Williams) and taught at one institution or another until his death.  In 1905 he switched to the St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith (London), as Musical Director, where he remained for the rest of his life and where his soundproof music room facilitated his composing.  Other appointments (which he held while still based at St. Paul’s School) included Morley College (1907–1924), the Royal College of Music (1917–1924; his composition pupils included Edmund Rubbra), University College Reading, and Harvard, where he was visiting lecturer in composition in 1932 (Elliott Carter was one of his pupils).  At Morley College his students (all of whom were members of the “working classes,” e.g, hackney drivers, bakers, tram conductors, clerks, hotel porters, and so on) performed Purcell’s Fairy Queen in the first production since the composer’s death in 1695.

Other activities included his founding and directing the Whitsun Festival in Thaxstead Essex, for both amateurs and professionals (1916 to his death), and creating the Whitsuntide Singers in 1916 to perform his works and those of other English composers; Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G Minor is dedicated to that group.  At the end of World War I Holst worked with demobilized troops in Greece (Salonika) and Turkey (Constantinople) as a music organizer in the YMCA.  About this time he switched from being Gustav von Holst (actually Gustavus Theodore von Holst) to simply Gustav Holst; although his family had been in England since the end of the eighteenth century and was actually of Scandinavian descent, Holst had been considered suspicious during the war, and the noble “von” still screamed “German!”

The popular success of both The Planets and The Hymn of Jesus in the 1920s led to too many demands on Holst’s time; overwork and a bad fall while conducting (coming on top of his never robust health) resulted in doctor’s orders to cut back drastically on his activities.  He did so, with a satisfying batch of new compositions as a result, but became quite ill again during his residence at Harvard.  He died a few months before his 60th birthday, with his ashes buried in Chichester Cathedral.

The Planets

I came to The Planets piecemeal, encountering Mars as an excerpt on the ten-disc Seraphim Guide to the Classics that I received as a Christmas present when I was an undergraduate.  Jupiter was next, after I finished graduate school, now as part of a free compilation CD distributed by Nimbus Records to tempt buyers.  Only when my older brother divested his record collection (having replaced everything with CDs) did I acquire the full composition in a recording by Sir Adrian Boult, the original conductor of the work.

The Planets is an amazing achievement on many levels.  First and foremost, Holst had not given much indication in his earlier works, orchestral or otherwise, that he had something of this scale in him.  And second, there is hardly any precedent for this piece.  Originally titled “Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra,” it is just that: seven substantial movements that are not part of a symphony, but with programmatic intent (i.e., the movements are meant to suggest something, even without telling a story per se).  Works such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Elgar’s Enigma Variations (two works sometimes named in connection with Planets) are each multi-movement programmatic (or quasi-programmatic) works, but in each of those the sections are much shorter.  And Pictures at an Exhibition was written for piano; later composers did the orchestration.

The seven movements correspond to the seven planets besides Earth that were known in the early twentieth century.  Inspired by astrology, not astronomy or mythology, they are (in order of their appearance in the composition, obviously, not distance from the Sun):

  • Mars, Bringer of War
  • Venus, Bringer of Peace
  • Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  • Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  • Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  • Uranus, the Magician
  • Neptune, the Mystic

The Planets became “incomplete” when Pluto was discovered in 1930.  Few people know that the downgrading of Pluto to “dwarf planet” status in 2006—which made The Planets “complete” again—was owing to a decades-long campaign begun by Holst as soon as Pluto was discovered, and that a concerted effort by classical music lovers worldwide finally made the change possible.

Okay, I totally made that up!  But it’s still true that The Planets went from being complete to incomplete to complete again.  And there are probably some music-loving astronomers who are happy with the change back to complete.

Holst came up with the idea for the work in 1912 or 1913, with Mars finally sketched in the summer of 1914, before the start of World War I (thus, a prediction of war rather than a reaction to it).  Venus and Jupiter followed, and 1915 saw the appearance of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.  Mercury came in 1916 and the full score was done in 1917.  Holst assumed that the orchestral forces needed were too much for any performance during wartime, since the piece calls for four flutes (two doubling piccolo and one doubling bass flute), three Bb or A clarinets, bass clarinet, three oboes (one doubling bass oboe), English horn, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tenor tuba, bass tuba, percussion (bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, six timpani for two players, gong, side drum, bass drum), strings, two harps, organ, and—of course—wordless women’s chorus.

But in September 1918 the generous Balfour Gardiner hired Queen’s Hall (destroyed during World War II), the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, and the young Adrian Boult for an invitation-only performance of the work.  A single rehearsal of less than two hours took place on September 29, followed by the performance after a 20-minute break (they had the hall from 10:30 to 1:30 on that Sunday morning/afternoon).  Despite the absurdly limited rehearsal time, it was a success, and not just for the invited audience.  Imogen Holst was told that “During Jupiter the charwomen working in the corridors put down their scrubbing-brushes and began to dance” (that makes a great story, whether or not it is true).  Four partial performances followed in 1919 and 1920 (never with Neptune) before the first complete public performance on 15 November 1920.  Holst’s conducting of the work was recorded twice in the 1920s, each time with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Not everyone liked the work initially.  Newspaper reviews unearthed by Richard Greene describe it as “Noisy and pretentious;” “Pompous, noisy, and unalluring;” “A great disappointment.  Elaborately contrived and painful to hear;” and “detestable music.”  Whew!  But these were typically based on performances missing one or more movements.  Conductors and audiences ignored such remarks and the work rapidly assumed the iconic status it enjoys today.

The seven movements of the work are sometimes seen as an overlapping double symphony: movements 1–4 and 4–7.  In this scheme Venus and Saturn function as the slow movements while Mercury and Uranus occupy the position of the scherzo.  Frankly, though, such reimagining of the structure seems unnecessary.  Really what we have is a set of seven character pieces, each of which provides strong contrast from the preceding by virtue of meter, tempo, dynamics, harmonic emphasis, texture, orchestration (at which Holst excels throughout), and melodic line.  Holst called the work “a series of mood pictures.”

Mars may not be the first planet in the solar system, but it proves a stunning opening for the Planets.  The 5/4 meter (a favorite of Holst’s), insistent ostinato, brisk tempo, pounding triplets, forceful dynamics, minor mode, and ambiguous tonality evoke the horror of war to perfection (brutal and stupid are two adjectives Boult used).  The ominous opening motive—a G to D perfect fifth immediately followed by a dissonant Db—instantly tells us that bad things are ahead.  The snare drum and trumpet fanfares underscore the militaristic theme.  The A B A’ structure is followed by a quadruple forte coda of harsh pounding chords irregularly interrupted by rests, with every pitch accented—a fitting conclusion to what has gone before.

The lyrical horn solo that opens Venus signals that this movement is a contrast in every way.  The slow tempo, soft dynamics, smooth undulating chords, regular 4/4 meter, more delicate orchestration (e.g. harps, celesta, glockenspiel, no low brass), floating high melodic lines, use of major mode, and greater harmonic stability all provide a much-needed antidote to the fear generated by the opening movement.

Mercury presents still another contrast.  It is (surprise!) mercurial in its vivace tempo, sparse textures, skipping arpeggiated motives sprinkled across the orchestra, frequent employment of soft dynamics, teasing use of hemiola, and perpetual motion.  A contrasting central section builds to a fortissimo climax for all forces before dying away; the opening material then returns to lead us to a pizzicato pianissimo ending over the first violins’ harmonic high G.

The central movement, Jupiter, is my favorite (even though I’m a Virgo like Holst and should prefer Mercury).  Holst wanted it to be “buoyant, hopeful, and joyous,” and he succeeded brilliantly in this central movement.  In contrast to pretty much everything else in Planets, Jupiter is filled with memorable motives/themes, and quite a few of them.  Insistent sixteenth-note staccato motion in the violins starts us off in a brisk allegro giocoso in 2/4; horns enter with an exuberant theme that rises up triumphantly, and we are off to the races, with one after another catchy new motive handed around the orchestra.

Jupiter is another movement with an A B A’ formal structure, but this time with a most distinctive B section.  The tempo slows to andante maestoso, the meter changes to 3/4, and the key changes from C to Eb.  The texture is melody and accompaniment, with the theme doubled in strings and horns.  It’s presented as a chorale, with each carefully crafted phrase ending on a half note.  The extremely effective melody builds slowly but inexorably, rising a full three octaves.  But to keep us moving forward, Holst ends this B section not on the tonic Eb, as we would expect, but rather on the F immediately above (or more precisely, on a dissonant Bb / Eb / F sonority, with the F suspended in the highest register against the note it’s longing to resolve to).

When I was first getting to know this movement I thought this tune cried out for words, so I set to work to create some enduring lyrics that would (as a side effect, of course) inscribe my name among the immortals (or something along those lines).  So I was a little disappointed when I discovered that I’d been beaten to it—not once, but twice.  “I vow to thee my country” was Holst’s own contribution (to save time on a commission, he used the Jupiter theme; Vaughan Williams had thought the theme deserved public singing).  Then, during Holst’s time at Harvard, the Harvard Glee Club sang “The Shores of Harvard” set to the Jupiter theme.  Fortunately I hadn’t gotten too far on my glorious prose before learning of these works.  And it’s some consolation to think that I had the same instinct as Vaughan Williams. 

Holst intended the central theme to serve as “the embodiment of ceremonial jollity,” and the entire movement has always reminded me of the joyful chaos of academic commencement.  The bustle of the A section finally quiets down to give way to the processional of the B theme (picture row upon row of faculty and graduates, all in colorful regalia, taking their places for the ceremony), after which the temporary solemnity yields to the renewed explosion of exuberance.  The majestic B theme reappears in the brass as we approach the conclusion, and then the movement culminates in the presto coda of sparkling arpeggios against a final triple forte brass statement. 

Saturn was Holst’s favorite movement, but I suspect it’s a lot of people’s least favorite.  With its slow tempo, steady syncopated half notes, soft dynamic, thin texture, and stately alternation of chords a major second apart, it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere for quite some time; one writer calls it an “impressionistic haze.”  The trombone entrance at the poco animato finally generates a real melody, but the movement still retains a somewhat static character throughout, for even in its loudest moments, where it reminds us a bit of Mars, it emphasizes ostinato and chordal oscillation (with an impressively clanging bell line).

We continue on our path out of the solar system (we’ve been in the right order since Jupiter) with Uranus.  After the brass get things going with a series of chords marked by fermatas, we hear tubas and bassoons (both instruments often associated with clownish images).  Then this trickster movement goes galloping away, its 6/4 meter marked by a constant skipping motive passed around the orchestra.  Erratic and eccentric, like some kind of crazy uncle who enjoys a good joke, it marches along, throwing in occasional 9/4 measures and sporadic piccolo shrieks.  The dynamics build and recede, build and recede, up to the largo 4/4 coda, where a triple forte for almost the entire orchestra then dies away to a ppp ending for timpani and harp—exactly what we need to transition to the last movement.

Neptune at last!  Our movement!  And honestly, doesn’t this sound like the far cold black reaches of outer space?

The score indicates a six-part double chorus of wordless women’s voices (SSA, SSA); at the beginning of the movement the instructions read “The Chorus is 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 [one early review remarks on an audible click from the door at this point].  The Chorus, the door, and any Sub-Conductors that may be found necessary are to be well screened from the audience.”

Some think that the use of wordless women’s chorus here might be an influence of Debussy’s Nocturnes, as it’s likely that Holst heard the work in London in 1909, and it, too, ends with wordless women’s chorus.  But Holst’s choir is offstage (Debussy’s is supposed to be seated within the orchestra), and Holst had already used an offstage choir in both his chamber opera Savitri (1908) and in the still earlier Princess songs (1905).  In the latter, an echo choir was placed offstage, with a door closed to accompany the words “dying, dying”—an obvious model for Neptune’s instructions.

For the first performance of the Planets the singers were from the St. Paul’s Girls’ School, which means they were teenagers.  A writer in 1920 described the spelling of the chords as being of “almost superhuman difficulty to the female chorus,” but he seems to have had a low opinion of women’s musical ability.  The lines are almost all stepwise, after all, and the ability to distinguish half steps from whole steps (possessed by most musicians, even female ones) serves one well.  The challenges are far more in singing a sustained pianissimo (especially on high notes) and in managing the considerable distance from the main conductor.

Holst told his daughter how the final diminuendo was handled.  Imogen writes “The singers began by standing out of sight in a box next to the Queen’s Hall organ...They were able to look at the conductor through a narrow gap between the curtains.  After about three bars they slowly turned round and walked down a corridor, watching the beat of a sub-conductor, who led them into a room at the far end, where a door was open to receive them.  They walked the whole length of this room while someone gradually closed the door, and they went on singing until the applause of the audience told them that their voices were no longer audible.  Holst used to make them rehearse this over and over again; any shoes that squeaked had to be taken off, and the door had to be shut absolutely silently.”  Some accounts of the Princess songs (performed at the St. Paul’s Girls’ School) had the choir similarly walking to a distant room.

Now for the music. The movement is back in 5/4, just as we were when the Planets began.  But now the tempo is andante, the dynamic is pianissimo, and a single flute and a bass flute play a kind of rocking motive in low registers.  Other instruments slowly join them:  the second flute, the oboes, the harps on tremolo chords.  This is not a movement of melodies, but rather one of shimmering eerie textures, arpeggiated filigree against sustained chords, divisi violins playing tremolo sul ponticello, chromatic runs, rapid rising and falling gestures, glissandi, trills on timpani and cymbals.  The dynamic is always soft (it is pianissimo throughout); the goal is always to create atmosphere.  The texture thickens with the addition of instruments but also with the increasing rapidity of the rhythmic subdivisions and the constant cross-rhythms (e.g. the celesta division of the quarter note into twelve against the harp divided into fourteen notes for each beat).  Then both harps and celesta are together in “fourteenuplets” against a timpani trill and low long held notes in various instruments (bassoon, contrabassoon, double bass, etc.)  So much is going on that a single measure can take up an entire page of the orchestral score.

And then all of this falls away with the switch to allegretto.  Against sustained strings, woodwinds and horns begin slowing rising stepwise lines, some of which then twist and fall.  They play some of the motives that we will take over when all women join in.  But to begin with it’s the first sopranos of both choruses who enter on a very long sustained high G, eleven measures of pianissimo that build briefly at the end and then die away.  Three measures later we all enter, with one after another voice taking up the overlapping rising motive—first F# G# A, the A B C#, and so on, with first sopranos eventually reaching high A.  Against this the orchestra is quieter than ever: just the two flutes and bass flute (low and soft) and harmonics on the harps.

When Choir I ends on a B-sharp minor triad (= sounding C minor), the orchestra rushes in to fill the void, with tremolos and sextuplets in the strings, sustained chords in winds and trombones, a timpani trill, arpeggiated harps, and thirty-second-note rising and falling scales on the celesta.  Then that brief flurry is over and we enter again, exactly where we left off in terms of pitch and again with gently rising motives.  Flutes and bass flute, clarinet, harps, celesta, and first violins accompany us; flutes, clarinet and celesta fall away to leave bass flute, harps, and first violins, and then they too drop out.  Only we singers are left (in seven parts now, as the first sopranos in choir I are divisi) as we shift between two dissonant sonorities, first an F major triad against a B# minor triad, and then a minor/minor seventh chord built on C# (also interpreted as an E major triad with an added sixth), with this last measure “to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.”

Really, how cool is it to get to sing this?

I like to think about the night before the first performance, when Holst, conductor Adrian Boult, patron Balfour Gardiner, and several of their friends had dinner at Gardiner’s club, the Savile (I know, I know—this was probably a club that excluded women and other “undesirables”).  Gardiner’s generous offer had resulted in a frantic rush to get the parts all copied (remember that the piece is for very large orchestra, and this was long, long before the press of a button on a computer could generate all the instrumental parts needed for a performance).  And Boult, who was only 29 years old at the time, had to familiarize himself with the music quickly by hearing a two-piano version played repeatedly by friends of Holst’s.  But all the material was in place, the choir was rehearsed, and Boult was prepared—everyone had done what they needed to do, there was nothing else to do, and it was performance eve.  Were they aware that they were awaiting the birth of a masterpiece?  Did even Holst have an inkling of just what he had really created?  The world was and is a mess, most people do their jobs poorly, and yet shining achievements happen nonetheless, with brilliant works performed superbly.

What an unbelievable gift to the world!

Other Music

The Planets is unquestionably Holst’s best-known work, and many listeners during his lifetime wanted him to keep writing more in the same vein.  But the highly individual Holst was not interested in repeating himself and was always looking for new things to try.  As with any composer, some pieces are more successful than others.  Those listed below are worth a listen (some of these I know well; others I cite on the basis of recommendations).

A major influence on Holst’s early compositions came in the form of a post-collegiate fascination with Indian literature, especially the sacred poetry of the Rig Veda.  Unhappy with the available translations, Holst studied Sanskrit at University College London so that he could make his own versions to set to music.  The fruits of this interest include his chamber opera Savitri (1908), the choral/orchestral Cloud Messenger (1909–1910), the symphonic poem Indra (1903), and especially the Rig Veda hymns, whose performing forces range from a solo voice with piano accompaniment to full chorus and orchestra.  These are mostly concentrated in his Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op. 26 (composed 1908–1912), consisting of four groups.  Groups 1, 2, and 4 are for chorus with orchestra, with Group 1 mixed chorus, Group 2 women’s chorus, and Group 4 men’s chorus.  My favorite, though, is Group 3, for women’s chorus and harp—these are absolutely glorious to sing!

If you grew up playing in a band, as I did, you surely performed one or both of Holst’s suites for band, Op. 28 (in Eb and F, from 1909 and 1911); No. 1 is especially famous.  Other important band works include A Moorside Suite (1928) and Hammersmith (1930), the latter later rewritten for orchestra (1931).

Holst’s first real success as a composer was with his Somerset Rhapsody (1907); the folk-song inspiration for this work helped him shed his reliance on Wagnerian chromaticism.  Other orchestral works include his St. Paul’s Suite for strings (1912–1913), Egdon Heath (1927; an homage to Thomas Hardy), the Double Concerto for two violins and orchestra (1929), the Brook Green Suite for strings (1933) and the Lyric Movement for viola and chamber orchestra (1933).  Some of Holst’s stage music has worked best in orchestral excerpts: the ballet music from his opera The Perfect Fool (1918–1922), the suite from the choral ballet The Golden Goose (1926) and the dances from the choral ballet The Morning of the Year (1926–1927), with the latter two arranged by Holst’s daughter long after his death.

In terms of vocal music, Holst’s most successful opera was his last, the comic chamber opera The Wandering Scholar (1929–1930), and his most successful songs were also his last collection, the 12 Songs of Humbert Wolfe (1929).  But it is in his choral music that he made the strongest contribution to vocal writing.

The choral works usually cited in connection with Holst are The Hymn of Jesus (1917, a spectacular work dedicated to Vaughan Williams, and the first composition to follow The Planets), the rarely-performed Ode to Death (1919, on texts by Whitman), A Choral Fantasia (1930), and Six Choruses for male voices and strings set to medieval Latin lyrics (1931–1932).  All of these are choral/orchestral.  The beautiful hymn In the bleak midwinter, to the poem by Christina Rossetti (1830–1894), is beloved of church choirs everywhere.  But really, these pieces are just the tip of the iceberg of a treasury of music for voices on which Holst lavished attention throughout his life.

Holst was a firm believer in music for amateurs—or rather, good music for amateurs, and his professional positions made him especially sensitive to the need for quality music for women’s choruses (he also thought girls should play wind instruments, which was highly unorthodox for the early 20th century).  He wrote that he was sent “reams of twaddle” for his girls’ choirs; not much seems to have changed today in terms of music for younger singers.  His exposure to folksong also generated his desire to make those riches available to everyone.  As a result, he left us a wealth of choral music, often a cappella, that is extremely satisfying to listen to and even more so to sing.

The superb choir known as the Holst Singers has recorded two CDs that provide an excellent demonstration of the breadth of Holst’s choral production.  The first, The Evening Watch, was recorded (appropriately enough) at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, and contains that eponymous work as well as Two Psalms, the Six Choruses for male voices, and various other pieces.  But it is the second CD, This have I done for my true love, that is really worth investigating.  It’s one of my all-time favorite CDs, and functions equally well in happy moments (music to quilt by, as I sink into the couch with needle and thread in hand) or after a rotten day when choral comfort is called for.

I bought This have I done for my true love because I wanted a recording of “I love my love” that I had sung as an undergraduate.  These days, people just go online and download an individual piece that they want, but by buying the whole CD (since downloading didn’t exist in the olden days), I got not just all of the Six Choral Folk Songs (1916) of which “I love my love” was a part, but also a whole batch of pieces I would not otherwise have encountered.  These included Two Eastern Pictures (1911, one of the fruits of Holst’s Sanskrit period), the Welsh folk-song “Mae ‘nghariad i’n Fenws” (1930–1931), a clutch of English folk songs including Diverus and Lazurus (ca. 1917), a charming set of songs from Tennyson’s The Princess for women’s chorus (1905, with echo effects foreshadowing Holst’s interest in distant voices), and much more.  Oh, and the CD opens with his stunning Ave Maria for eight-part women chorus.  Other recordings of this work exist, but the Holst Singers’ version is far and away the best, with its pure high D in the top soprano part and exquisite singing throughout.

So.  None of this is likely to show up on a list of “Choral Works Every Singer Must Know,” and yet—they have brought me hours and hours of pleasure over many years.  It’s heartwarming, too, to think that for more than a century now much of this has brought other singers equal pleasure, going back to those young women—girls, really—whom Holst respected so much that he provided finely crafted and musically satisfying compositions to fill their lives, voices, hearts, souls.  I’d like to think that these works will still be providing these gifts a century from now.

April 2018