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Gustav Holst The Planets Analysis Essay

The Planets, Op. 32, in full The Planets: Suite for Large Orchestra, original name Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra, orchestralsuite consisting of seven short tone poems by English composer Gustav Holst. Its first public performance took place in 1920, and it was an instant success. Of the various movements, “Mars” and “Jupiter” are the most frequently heard.

Holst wrote his collection of planetary portraits from 1914 to 1916, while he was director of music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School. His inspiration, he readily offered, came from astrology and horoscopes rather than astronomy and mythology. “These pieces,” he wrote

were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no programme music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it be used in a broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also the more ceremonial type of rejoicing associated with religions or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment. Mercury is the symbol of the mind.

A complete list of movements in Holst’s The Planets follows:

  • Mars, the Bringer of War

  • Venus, the Bringer of Peace

  • Mercury, the Winged Messenger

  • Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

  • Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age

  • Uranus, the Magician

  • Neptune, the Mystic

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.

 

 

 

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