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Music Education Night - The Planets

(For Katy)

Hi there, and welcome to Music Education Night...

Tonight we're going to sit down with one of my favorite composers, Gustav Holst, and his most famous creation, "The Planets".

Holst was English by birth, and lived from 1874 to 1934. "The Planets" was composed in 1914 and is a suite consisting of 7 movements, one named for each planet in the Solar System, except for Earth, and Pluto, which was not yet discovered. (There is actually group on Facebook called, "I'm glad Pluto is no longer a planet, it makes Gustav Holst's suite complete. Mostly sad band geeks, and I belong to it so there you go.) The suite is very well-known for its ground breaking nature, visual clarity, and the pure emotions it stirred within its audiences at the time.

When Holst was born, the symphonic medium and the era of Romanticism had peaked, most notably with composers such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. As music in the classic form (not to be confused with the Classical era of Mozart or Hayden, but in general, as opposed to popular music) progressed to the Twentieth Century, audiences became bored with the traditional form of 4 movement symphonies, 3 movement concertos, and standard operatic fare. The musical world began to move in two directions. To esoteric and academic, with Weber and Hindemith, and to a visual style, not quite pop, but more in touch with the growing sensory needs of a modernizing society. Holst's "The Planets" broke the walls down to the latter in an astounding way, built on the shoulders of such groundbreaking composers before him such as Berlioz, Rossini, and Verdi.

"The Planets" almost single-handedly ushered in the medium of the Tone Poem. Lushly visual, breaking with traditional format, it gave the masses of the day an anchor to relate to it. Holst was an avid astrology follower. His composition presented an almost movie-soundtrack-like portrait of the Gods, with the bombastic gnashing of brass in "Mars" and the soaring, regal melody of "Jupiter" being tossed from strings to horns and all around the orchestra.

(The links below are downloadable, and are from the definitive 1981 recording by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit conducting. If you are reading this blog in the future and the links have expired, just let me know and I will update them.)

The suite begins with "Mars, the Bringer of War." Many people credit Holst with a prediction of World War I in this piece, the most famous of the suite, but he swore in later life that it was not the case. But there can be no denying the menace and downright violent intent in "Mars." Its off-camber, limping time signature of 5/8, meaning each measure is divided into five eighths, unsettles the listener right from the beginning with the col legno (struck with the back of the bow) strings. The piece grows to a raucous volume and introduces a counter-melody that adds to the sense of unease. The new melody is actually in 5/4, (in half time actually, think only quarters now as the subdivision, but 5 of them) and it ebbs and flows with the underlying rhythm, separating and rejoining it in constant motion - for even though the written time is in eighths, the feel of the counter melody stretches across two measures of the underlying rhythm. There is a very famous tenor tuba solo, as well, and the ending...well, it is violently unforgettable as Mars stands, bloody and grimacing, over his still twitching foe. It must have left hush over the concert hall as the conductor flipped the pages on his score, and moved on to Venus.

"Venus, The Bringer of Peace" is second, and is the third-most widely programmed of the movements, after Mars and Jupiter. Lush melodies throughout, it certainly relaxes the listener after the tense first movement, with strings and flute carrying the mood of beauty and peace.

"Mercury, The Winged Messenger" is fittingly the shortest of the movements, and fills the traditional role of the Scherzo movement, with a quick, light-footed melodies moving rapidly throughout the orchestra, providing an easy transition to the heavy four movements that follow.

"Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity" is probably what most would call the "happy movement." Massive weight, intense with positive energy, you can almost see a giant, bearded, sweaty fellow with a shirtless belly, wearing a crown and holding turkey legs in each hand while naked women fan him with ostrich feathers and feed him grapes while room full of fat, laughing subjects celebrate and sing his praises.

"Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age." Time is what I feel when listening to this movement. The march of time, and hopelessness. Constant motion in the underlying rhythm, I am taken through the end-of-life ruminations of an old man saying his last words.

"Uranus, The Magician." Almost a canon in the traditional sense, if this piece had to fill a role. The 4-note theme is introduced in the trumpets and low horns right from the beginning and is explored and transformed through the entire 6 minute movement, ending in a climactic cacophony of sound in the form of the biggest chord you have ever heard in your life. It is the E-flat that ate the world.

"Neptune, The Mystic." As Uranus fades into Neptune, I always sensed that Holst had some sort of understanding for the actual size of the Solar System, as with this final movement, he somehow perfectly sums up the emptiness, and ice-cold sadness, of such a lonely blue planet, far away from any warmth and familiarity. Chills will certainly move down your spine as the woman's choir enters midway. I heard this piece live by the Dallas Symphony in the early Nineties. They have a state of the art concert hall known worldwide for it's acoustic perfection, and the choir was up in the resonance chambers of the ceiling. Their icy voices drifted down amongst the audience like snowflakes, and we shuddered as we listened.

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