Program Notes

The Planets, Suite for Large Orchestra, Opus 32

GUSTAV HOLST (Gustavus Theodore von Holst)
BORN: September 21, 1874. Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
DIED: May 25, 1934. London

COMPOSED: Holst began writing The Planets between 1914 and 1916, beginning with Mars (but before the outbreak of war that August), continuing with Venus and Jupiter that fall, writing Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in 1915, and finishing with Mercury in 1916

WORLD PREMIERE: The first performance of the complete suite took place under the direction of Albert Coates on November 15, 1920, in London

US PREMIERE: Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on December 31, 1920

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—November 1929. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—Edwin Outwater conducted as part of the SFS Summer with the Symphony series

INSTRUMENTATION: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo, 4th also doubling alto flute), 3 oboes and English horn (3rd oboe doubling bass oboe), 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tenor tuba, bass tuba, 6 timpani (2 players), triangle, snare drum, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, tam‑tam, chimes, glockenspiel, celesta, xylophone, 2 harps, organ, and strings. A hidden 6‑part choir of female voices is introduced in Neptune

DURATION: About 49 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Gustav Holst’s father was a piano teacher whose grandfather had once taught the harp to the Imperial Grand Duchesses in Saint Petersburg, and had emigrated to England from Riga. Gustav’s mother, a sweet lady whose jumpy nerves were upset by music, died young, and Gustav and his brother, Emil Gottfried (later a successful actor under the name of Ernest Cossart), were brought up by their Aunt Nina, who had strewn rose petals for Franz Liszt to walk on. Gustav inherited his mother’s overstrung nerves, and later in life he was several times near mental collapse. He was a timid child, so nearsighted that as a grown man he could not, even when wearing spectacles, recognize members of his own family at six yards. His nights alternated between insomnia and nightmares. Much of his life he suffered from neuritis so severe that he had to dictate some of his music, including portions of the densely intricate score of The Planets. He played violin and keyboards as a boy, but the neuritis put a stop to both, and other than occasional conducting, his last activity as a performer was as trombone player in the Scottish Orchestra and with the Carl Rosa Opera Company from 1898 until 1903.

He studied composition at the Royal College of Music, London, with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and it was as a composer and teacher that he really found himself. He taught most of his adult life, at the James Allen and Saint Paul’s schools for girls, at Morley College for Working Men and Women, and briefly in 1932 at Harvard. He kept the association with Saint Paul’s until his death—the alumnae used to identify themselves to him by naming the Bach cantatas they had sung under his direction—and it was there that he worked on The Planets, in the soundproof room of the new music wing opened in 1913, a paradise where he could be undisturbed and indulge in the near‑crematorial indoor temperatures he favored.

There was more to his heaven and earth than what he inherited from his Swedish and English ancestors or what he had learned at the Royal College. In his twenties, he became deeply involved in Indian philosophy and religion, and he taught himself Sanskrit to make his own translations of the Rig Veda. Between 1908 and 1912 he composed four sets of hymns from those ancient books of knowledge, and his most moving achievement is the opera Savitri, based on an incident in the fourth‑century epic Mahabharata.

Sometime after the turn of the century, Holst came into the thrall of astrology. He was reluctant to speak of this, though he admitted that casting horoscopes for his friends was his “pet vice.” The Planets is an astrological work. “As a rule I only study things that suggest music to me,” Holst once wrote, “recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me.”

THE MUSIC  For the 1920 premiere, Holst provided this note: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no programme music, 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 the 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 mind.”

Mars, the Bringer of War The association of Mars and war goes back as far as history records. The planet’s satellites are Phobos (fear) and Deimos (terror), and its astrological symbol combines shield and spear. Holst’s Mars is a fierce, remorseless allegro. The British conductor Sir Adrian Boult recalled that the aspect of war Holst most wanted to express was its stupidity.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace After the moon, Venus is the brightest object in our night sky. The identification with Ishtar, Aphrodite’s Babylonian predecessor, goes back to at least 3000 BCE. In The Principles and Practices of Astrology, Noel Tyl tells us that, to astrologers, “when the disorder of Mars is past, Venus restores peace and harmony.” Horn and flutes answer each other in this adagio. High violins have an extended song, but the dominant colors are the cool ones of flutes, harps, and celesta.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger Hermes, god of cattle, sheep, and vegetation, deity of dreams, and conductor of the dead, first assumes the role of messenger in the Odyssey. Mercury, his Roman counterpart, was primarily a god of merchandise and merchants, and his winged sandals and winged cap are taken over from Hermes. To astrologers, Mercury is “the thinker.” The composer makes this a virtuosic scherzo, unstable, nervously changeable in meter and harmony—in a word, mercurial.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity The most massive of the planets, possessing twelve satellites (one of them larger than the planet Mercury), named for the light‑bringer, the rain‑god, the god of thunderbolts, of the grape and the tasting of the new wine, of oaths, treaties, and contracts, and from whom we take the word “jovial.” “Jupiter,” says Noel Tyl, “symbolizes expansiveness, scope of enthusiasm, knowledge, honor, and opportunity . . . [and] corresponds to fortune, inheritance, bonanza.” Holst gives us an unmistakably English Jupiter. In 1921 Holst took the big tune in the middle and set to it as a unison song with orchestra the words, “I vow to thee, my country.”

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age Saturn is the outermost of the planets known in ancient times. The god is associated with Cronus and traditionally portrayed as an old man. To quote Tyl again, Saturn is “man’s time on earth, his ambition, his strategic delay, his wisdom toward fulfillment, his disappointments and frustrations.” Another adagio dominated by the sound of flutes and harps, like Venus in both characteristics, but static, full of the suggestion of bells, and serene at the last. This movement was Holst’s favorite.

Uranus, the Magician The first planet discovered in the age of the telescope, specifically in 1781 by Sir William Herschel, who wanted to name it for George III. In astrology, Uranus rules invention, innovation, and astrology itself. Holst begins with a triple invocation (trumpets and trombones, then tubas, then timpani) and leads that way into a movement of galumphing dance. At the end, the apparitions disappear into the night.

Neptune, the Mystic Pluto was discovered in 1930, so when Holst wrote his suite, Neptune, discovered in 1846, was the extreme point in our system. In 2006 the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of its status as a planet and consigned it to a new category, dwarf planet; and although the composer Colin Matthews created a Pluto movement in 2000 as an addition to Holst’s original, Holst apparently had things right all along.

In astrology, Neptune means confusion and mystic rapport with other worlds. Neptune is invisible to the naked eye, and to Holst it speaks of distance, mystery, unanswerable questions. He makes of it another slow movement in swaying, irregular meter, softly dissonant in harmony, full of the sound of shimmering harps and celesta, and dissolving in the voices of an invisible chorus of women.

―Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in July 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic (EMI Great Recordings of the Century)  |  Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (available on both Teldec and Apex)  |  André Previn conducting the Royal Philharmonic (Telarc)  |  William Steinberg conducting the Boston Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon Originals)

ReadingHolst: The Planets, by Richard Greene, is a book-length study of the music (Cambridge). | Two books by the composer’s daughter Imogen Holst are, unfortunately, both out of print: an excellent biography, Holst (Faber & Faber), and The Music of Gustav Holst: And, Holst’s Music Reconsidered (Oxford) 

(April 2018)

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