The Planets, Op.32

The Planets is a suite for large orchestra which brought Holst’s name to the attention of the general public.

The doctrine of theosophy was an important influence on European modernist movements of the early 20th century. In Britain composers like Gustav Holst (1874–1934) and John Foulds (1880–1939) were particularly influenced by this esoteric doctrine which encourages the re-evaluation of the divine and the ancient cultures as a forward path to intellectual enlightenment. Holst had already applied some of these ideas, through his interest in Indian culture, as the inspiration for works such as Sita (1900–06) and Choral Hymns for the Rig Veda (1908–12). However, the most prominent of such works was The Planets.

The Planets was composed between 1914 and 1916, and would become Holst’s most popular work.  It comprises a suite of seven movements which draws poetic inspiration from astrology, rather than a strict programmatic basis. Each movement represents an individual tone poem and is named after a different planet, reflecting its astrological characteristics:

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War.
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace.
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger.
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age.
  6. Uranus, the Magician.
  7. Neptune, the Mystic.

Clifford Bax (1886–1962) had introduced Holst to the concepts of astrology during a trip to Spain. The works of the astrologer Alan Leo were also a direct influence: Holst owned a copy of his book The Art of Synthesis, in which the heading of each chapter describes the characteristics of a planet, similar to way in which Holst named his movements. In fact ‘Neptune’ shares the same title as the corresponding chapter in the book.

The Planets was premiered at a private performance at the Queen's Hall on the 29 September 1918 with Adrian Boult conducting. The work calls for the use of a very large orchestra, reminiscent of the scale employed by Schoenberg in Gurrelieder and by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony.

Among others we can identify sporadic influences of the music of Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss. Likewise, The Planets has subsequently served as inspiration for countless works. For instance, the influence of the Mars movement is easily recognisable in John Williams’s ‘Imperial March’ from the soundtrack to the Star Wars films.

The music critic Edwin Evans (1874–1945) wrote in 1919 that The Planets was ‘one of the most ambitious achievements in modern British music, and it has had the effect of placing its composer in the estimation of the musical world, on a level which only a limited circle considered to be within his reach formerly’.

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