The classical work that launched a hundred film soundtracks and John Williams career (listen to Mars around from 4.47 and tell me that’s not the entrance of the Stormtroopers in Star Wars). From the ominous opening with the string players hitting their bows wood-side against the strings, to the brain-fazing vocals drifting off into space at the end of Neptune, there’s a lot of remarkable invention and envelope-pushing in this work, regardless of its position now as a staple on the concert programme (in the UK at least) and a crowd-pleasing favourite. (NB: something being popular doesn’t denigrate it’s quality, let’s stop being elitist about music).
Written between 1914 and 1916 whilst men were dying in the trenches of the first world war, and Holst was working as a music teacher in St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London, it’s arguably one of the few British classical works that reaches the scale, in terms of symphonic size and ambition, as the European greats – Mahler, Wagner et al. The piece has little to do with astronomy but is based on Holst’s definition of the planets’ astrological meaning. This was partly why he wasn’t bothered adding Pluto on the end after it was discovered in 1930. That, and the fact that it’s perfectly complete as it is.
A lesser composer might have been tempted to end with a bit more of bang and put Jupiter last for example, but instead we have Neptune fading away into oblivion amongst the further reaches of our solar system. I can understand the appeal, but I do dislike those recordings and performances which tack a newly composed Pluto on the end, it was all the rage for a while, and fortunately you don’t tend to see it so often. The ethereal beauty of Holst’s score ends with a gradually disappearing celestial choir. I can still recall listening to my cassette tape copy as a youngster and straining my ears to catch the point when you stopped hearing it. The incredible thing was, it didn’t stop, it continued into your consciousness.
Mars and Jupiter are the movements which are most well-known and commonly played (on the radio at least) as separate pieces, but The Planets should really be heard as a whole to fully appreciate. The juxtaposition of the planetary movements, their musical themes and astrological personalities have been brilliantly chosen and structured. After the thundering brutality of Mars, we have Venus, The Bringer of Peace and the lyrical loveliness of English strings, parts of which echo (for me) his close friend Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Mercury is light and fleeting as the Messenger, and the last of the movements to be composed, whereas Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age provides solemnity and a sense of foreboding, as well as orchestral power on a par with Mars. Uranus the Magician employs similar orchestration and lolloping rhythms to that of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (made most famous through Disney’s use in Fantasia, 6 years after Holst’s death.)
This is one of the first pieces of classical music I heard. My brother and I listened to it pretty regularly until we wore the cassette tape thin, along with the few other pieces of recorded music we had – Mozart’s 40th, Beethoven’s 5th, Grieg’s Peer Gynt and Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Enigma Variations. Consequently, I know it well, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t stop me in my tracks when I listen to it nowadays. When I played it again (several times) to write this randomrecordreview I listened to Mars on my best quality headphones, and it was so stunningly brilliant and overwhelming it made me cry. That’s what good music should do.
Best Bits: The literally breath-taking thunder of Mars and beauty of Neptune
Genre: Classical Icon
Like This, Try This: Last year, as the centenary of its first performance, Sound UK commissioned 8 contemporary British composers from all disciplines to reimagine and compose a 2018 version of The Planets. You can hear it here: http://www.sounduk.net/events/planets-2018/