Planets Holst Analysis Essay

WWI was an unprecedented time in the history of Europe, and its effects were evident in the music of the time. In “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity” from the orchestral suite The Planets, Gustav Holstfused the intellectual styles of his contemporaries and nationalistic folk sensibilities together to embody everything that it meant to be a modern Englishman in the post WWI era. This music gave the people of England a sense of national identity, and this piece of music still resonates in the hearts and minds of the English people today.

Gustav Holst penned The Planets from 1914-1916, but it was not publicly premiered until 1919, right as Europe found itself rebuilding from the devastation of World War I. The war had disrupted virtually every way of life, and the musical sphere was not exempt from such turbulence. Modernist composers, such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg, were drastically shifting the landscape of music at the time by creating music that appeared to be beyond the capacity of the listener. Much of this music caught audiences by storm, and as Ralph Vaughan Williams explained: “The modern mind needs a modern vocabulary, but the vocabulary will not make the modern mind.”[1]  During the premiere of Stravisky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, the music was so groundbreaking and controversial that the audience began to riot during the performance. While some composers created music using avant-garde approaches, many English composers, namely Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar, helped define the new English style by incorporating simple folk melodies into their music. Gustav Holst responded by synthesizing these styles together in The Planets. The first A theme in “Jupiter” is almost Stravinsky-like in it’s relentless rhythmic syncopation:

Later in the piece, Holst writes a beautiful anthem-like melody reminiscent of a folk song:

Holst masterfully takes these two idioms and melds them together in a way which truly elevates the importance of the “popular” music style.

Holst’s Connections with Theosophy:

Theosophy, the investigation of the nature of the divine, was a prevailing popular belief around the time of the creation of The Planets. Much has been written about the connections between The Planets and astrological beliefs pioneered by the theosophist, Alan Leo. This connection can be traced back to Holst’s early life. After the death of his birth mother in 1882, Gustav Holst’s father married Mary Thorley Stone, a woman who found herself more concerned about theosophy and religion than her family.[2] It seems that throughout The Planets Holst does not embrace astrology directly but rather shies away from it. The original title for The Planets was “Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra,” (possibly paying homage to Schoenberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra,” but Holst renamed it The Planets two years later.[5] This proves that the composer’s original intentions were not to write an astrological piece.  It is curious that Holst chose the word “jollity” for a subtitle to describe the “Jupiter” movement as opposed to “joviality,” being derived from “Jove,” Jupiter’s other name in classical astrology.[3] In addition, Holst does not include movements depicting The Sun or The Moon which are the first two of the classical astrological planets. These deliberate avoidances of astrology may explain that Holst’s chief aim was not to evoke a mythological character in each movement, but rather to evoke qualities of a human character through the image of the extraterrestrial.[4]

Thaxted:

Holst found inspiration for The Planets while staying in a small cottage at Thaxted in Essex, which became the namesake for the hymn setting of the anthem-like Jupiter theme “I Vow to Thee My Country.”[6] The Foxearth Historical Society has published literature regarding Holst’s time in the town of Thaxted, and they offer an alternative explanation to “Jupiter” as it pertains to everyday life in Thaxted:

Starting at the base of the market in Town Street, with snatches of folk-songs, and market cries, walking up Stony Lane past the Cutlers’ Guild-hall with slower plodding steps, a pause as we reach the churchyard, and a sudden solemnity; Then up to the porch of the church. Bursting in to the sound of the hymn (later given the words ‘I vow to thee my country’) and crossing to the north porch. Then out across the churchyard and around the shops in the bullring and in Watling Lane with bustling music and brief snatches of tunes and song. Then suddenly we are dancing down Watling lane to a wild version of the theme we heard when trudging up Stony Lane, to catch sight once more of the full splendour of the church near Clarence House.[7]

Although it began as a theme embedded in Holst’s “Jupiter,” the Thaxted tune resonated with audiences like never before. Holst set this melody to Cecil Spring Rice’s text “I Vow To Thee My Country” in 1921, and it instantly became a symbol of English identity.

 

Musical Analysis:

Through Holst’s use of form, melody, and orchestration, he embodied everything that it meant to be an Englishman in post WWI era. After listening to the piece, one will note the lack of transitions between thematic areas. The lack of transitional points jars the listener in a way that appears unconventional in intellectual music, but could stand to represent a traditional day at Thaxted in the eyes of Gustav Holst, as stated above by the Foxearth Historical Society. Even Ralph Vaughan Williams recognized the disconnection between the themes in “Jupiter” when he said: “Incidentally, it is a pity that this theme is hidden in the middle of “Jupiter” which it does not seem altogether to fit.”[8] Yet, in the context of the everyday Englishman, that juxtaposition could make much sense. The seemingly random insertion of the hymn tune could be explained by Holst suddenly entering the church at St. Johns. These themes are organized into a 11-part rondo form: A-B-A-C-A-D-A-B-A-C-A. Similarly, many classical pieces with rondo form, such as Beethoven’s “Pathetique” piano sonata, feature music of a popular or old style, and Holst ties into those sentiments by utilizing this form in his piece.  

 

“Jupiter” is characterized by modality which can be nebulous at times. The first ‘A’ theme consists of the notes CDEGA which form a major pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales are commonplace in many folk traditions around the world, but also common in the music of Holst’s contemporaries such as Debussy. The use of modality and the pentatonic scale are examples of the fusion of the intellectual and folk traditions. In addition, Holst uses ascending scalar patterns many times in “Jupiter,” a definite nod to the extraterrestrial.

The most impressive musical characteristic of this piece, however, is Holst’s use of the orchestra. The first A theme is introduced in the horns, violas, and cellos, but is soon passed off to clarinets, bassoons, low brass, basses, and timpani. There is a sense of unity evoked in how the melodic lines seem to be shared amongst the entirety of the orchestra. Yet, Holst also calls for a large orchestra and unique instruments such as tenor tuba, six timpani shared amongst two players, and two harps. These larger instrumentation demands were already commonplace in the music of Holst’s contemporaries such as Stravinsky and Mahler.

These unique combinations of form, melody, and orchestration had to be in part inspired by Holst’s time at Thaxted and through these combinations, he truly embodies the nature of the Englishman in the post WWI era. Holst and Vaughan Williams were good friends for the last twenty five years of Holst’s life, and much has been published about their correspondence. Vaughan Williams offers high praise to Holst after reading his letter about beauties of Thaxted by saying: “I sometimes feel that the future of musical England rests with you […] we don’t take music as a part of our every-day life half enough.”[9]

 

 

 

 

[1] R. Vaughan Williams, “Gustav Holst. I,” Music & Letters 1, no. 3 (1920).

[2]Matthews Colin, “Holst, Gustav,” Grove Music Online: 55.

[3]Greene, Holst: The Planets, 55.

[4]Richard Greene, Holst: The Planets (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 45.

[5]The Foxearth and District Local History Society, “‘I Ring for the General Dance’- Gustav Holst and Thaxted”, The Foxearth and District Local History Society http://www.foxearth.org.uk/holst.html (accessed 24 April 2014).

[6]Imogen Holst, The Music of Gustav Holst and Holst’s Music Reconsidered (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 42.

[7]Society.

[8]Williams, “Gustav Holst. I,” 184.

[9]Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, Heirs and Rebels (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1974), 45.

 

 

Bibliography:

Colin, Matthews. “Gustav Holst.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press (accessed April 25, 2014).

Greene, Richard. Holst: The Planets. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Holst, Imogen. The Music of Gustav Holst and Holst’s Music Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Society, The Foxearth and District Local History, “‘I Ring for the General Dance’- Gustav Holst and Thaxted”, The Foxearth and District Local History Society http://www.foxearth.org.uk/holst.html (accessed 24 April 2014).

Williams, Ralph Vaughan. “Gustav Holst. I.” Music & Letters 1, no. 3 (1920): 181-190.

Williams, Ralph Vaughan and Gustav Holst. Heirs and Rebels. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1974.

 

 

 

Posted in: National Identity and Politics in Music

The Planets, suite for orchestra & female chorus, Op. 32, H. 125

The Planets, composed in 1914-16 and premiered under the baton of Adrian Boult, made Gustav Holst a very popular figure. The real Holst was a more "serious" composer than one might think from a quick listen to this all-stops-out essay in orchestral showmanship. Yet even here, there are characteristics of that deeper musician, in the remarkable gift for melody (exhibited on nearly every page of the score) and in the music's pervasive mysticism.

The suite opens with a portrait of "Mars, the Bringer of War." The movements that follow are "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," "Mercury, the Winged Messenger," "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age," "Uranus, the Magician" and "Neptune, The Mystic." Holst's treatment of the planets focuses not on their celestial nature, but on the astrological aspects long associated with them and their mythological namesakes.

The whole score has become a modern classic, often performed in a pops setting. Today's master of extraterrestrial music, John Williams, has borrowed freely from The Planets in his film scores, most notably in his depiction of the Empire forces in Star Wars, which echoes the sinister martial rhythm heard at the beginning of "Mars, the Bringer of War."

Gardiner's Interplanetary Journey

The idea of John Eliot Gardiner not only doing Holst's The Planets, but doing it effectively, shouldn't have come as a surprise, considering his broad musical culture and the success he's always had with large-scale works. When this recording came out, no one was really sure what to expect from a conductor who specialized in early music. But Gardiner is, after all, an English conductor, and one who grew up in the tradition. His father, Henry Balfour Gardiner, conducted the first private reading of The Planets.

This 1994 recording is breathtaking. There is extraordinary inner detail, with string tone that's natural, as is the timbre of winds and high percussion, and an astonishing weight in the bass. Gardiner approaches the piece in the same way that he does Bach or Handel. He goes and digs things out of the score, and he finds all these wonderful elements to illuminate. He gets the musicians to play on the edge of their seats; to pay close attention to dynamics, articulations and voicings. All the things one would expect from a performance in early music are here, as well. Every time I come back to this piece, I'm impressed with how well Holst handled the assignment he gave himself.

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