Holst’s “The Planets” or Holst ke Sayyare

From the dawn of time, human beings have had a fascination for objects in the sky, especially in the dark night when what is before you is less visible that what is above in the firmament. Above the celestial objects in the cosmos are planets (from Greek πλανήτης, alternative form of πλάνης “wanderer”)  – which orbit a star or stellar remnant that is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity but  not massive enough to cause thermonuclear fusion. That is the scientific definition for those who go in for these sort of things.

However, what we are concerned with is that from ancient times, planets have ties to history, science, mythology, and religion. The planets were originally seen by many early cultures as divine, or as emissaries of the gods. And that is what we need as background for this post.

In 1913 while on holiday with friends, British composer Gustav Holst listened to one who was researching astrology. He realised that the clearly defined character of each planet could suggest the varying moods of a musical work. As he wrote in a letter: “As a rule I only study things that suggest music to me… Recently the character of each planet suggested lots and I have been studying astrology pretty closely.”

Holst called his piece “a series of mood pictures.”  This helps identify other influences for this work. Before Holst started to compose The Planets, both Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky made trips to England and caused quite a stir – the first who conducted his Five Orchestral Pieces Op. 18, based on which Holst originally titled his works “Seven Orchestral Pieces.” Around the same time, Stravinsky came to England and conducted his Le sacre du printemps. Holst must have noticed this unconventional way to use the orchestra, because in the first movement of The Planets, “Mars,” the blatant dissonance and unconventional metre seems to betray the influence of Stravinsky.

Holst, who wrote the suite between 1914 and 1916, seemed to consider The Planets a progression of life. Lets take a quick overview before we deal with various movements in detail. They are, in the order:

Mirrikh, no, Bahram, I mean Mars, the Bringer of War
Zohra,
sorry, Nahid, no Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Atarad, no I mean Tir, no, Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Mushtari no, Birjis, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
Zuhal, no no, Kaiwan, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Uranus, the Magician
Neptune, the Mystic
 

“Mars” perhaps serves as a rocky and tormenting beginning. In fact, some have called this movement the most devastaing piece of music ever written! “Venus” seems to provide an answer to “Mars,” its title as “the bringer of peace,” helps aid that claim. “Mercury” can be thought of as the messenger between thisworld and the other worlds. Perhaps “Jupiter” represents the “prime” of life, even with the overplayed central melody, which was later arranged to the words of Cecil Spring Rice’s“I vow to thee, my country.” “Saturn” can be viewed as indicative of Holst’s later mature style, and indeed it is recorded that Holst preferred this movement to all others in the suite. Through “Saturn” it can be said that old age is not always peaceful and happy. The movement may display the ongoing struggle for life against the odd supernatural forces. This notion mat be somewhat outlandish, but the music seems to lend credence to this. “Saturn” is followed by “Uranus, the Magician,” a quirky scherzo displaying a robust musical climax before the tranquility of the female choir in “Neptune” enchants the audience.

Lets go in for a more detailed look in the next post………..

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