HOLST: The Planets / The Mystic Trumpeter, Op. 18

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Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

The Planets • The Mystic Trumpeter • Colin Matthews: Pluto

Holst’s reputation depends very largely on The Planets: few composers have achieved such success with a single work. As a result, the rest of his music has been overshadowed, and The Planets often regarded as if it came from nowhere. Yet the music fits naturally into Holst’s output, a logical development from his earlier works, and a pointer to much that he was to achieve subsequently.

If the musical language of The Planets might have been predicted, it remains a work that has few antecedents. No one had written a multi-movement work on this scale before. The character studies of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Elgar’s Enigma Variations might point in the same direction, but their individual movements are on a much smaller scale. As ‘sound pictures’, the three movements of Debussy’s La Mer or Nocturnes, which Holst probably heard Debussy conduct in 1909, and whose women’s voices in Sirènes surely influenced Neptune, are closer in form. Holst was certainly impressed by Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, which he heard in 1914 - the original title of The Planets was ‘Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra’ (with the names of the planets omitted).

The work, however, is one of the great originals. Holst called it a ‘Suite’ and while some have gone on to call it a ‘Symphonic Suite’, this is not really an appropriate subtitle. Holst preferred to work spontaneously, without great regard for strict formal procedures. Nearly all of his music, like the individual movements of The Planets, is built from relatively short structures which are self-contained, and create their own logic.

Holst’s initial ideas came from his interest in astrology, a by-product of the study of Sanskrit literature which had influenced a great deal of his earlier music. It was not an obsessive interest - Holst wrote only that astrology had ‘suggested’ the characters of the planets - but it gave him a convenient hook on which to hang the musical structure and appropriate titles for the movements, expressing a mood rather than painting a picture. In an age where we are now so familiar with remarkable images of the planets, we should not forget that they were far more mysterious and remote to Holst’s generation, and that the pictures that may come to our minds are quite different from the characteristics that Holst intended to portray.

Holst conceived The Planets at least as early as 1913, and the work was completed in 1917. Although the first public performance did not take place until 1920, a private performance in 1918, and several performances of parts of the work, had already established a reputation for the music, which it was never to lose. Holst recorded the work twice, in 1922-3 and in 1926, both times with the London Symphony Orchestra.

The individual movements were not composed in the order in which they are performed (Mercury was the last movement to be written) but Mars, the Bringer of War was completed first. Often taken to be a picture of mechanised warfare, it was in fact finished well before the outbreak of the First World War. Its pounding rhythms and forceful dissonance have become a template for film composers, but the originality of Holst’s conception remains remarkably fresh. In contrast, Venus, the Bringer of Peace shows Holst at his most relaxed and lyrical - something he did not easily achieve in later life. This is the gentlest of the seven pieces, with no moments of unease or any climactic point: Neptune follows the same pattern, but, where it is cold and passion-free, Venus is full of warmth.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger has an appropriately quicksilver lightness of touch. As in Mars and Neptune, Holst uses bitonality, music written simultaneously in two different keys, but in those two movements he is employing deliberately dissonant harmony (although achieving quite opposite effects); here its use is effortless and elusive. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity is full of extravert good humour, and full too of memorable tunes. Ever since the most expansive of them was appropriated for a patriotic hymn, there has been a tendency to over-solemnise the mood, but Holst is not asking anyone to stand to attention: this is simply the more serious side of good humour.

Holst’s own favourite movement was Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age. Its sad processional music is very characteristic of the composer, although nowhere else did he allow his processions to reach such a terrifying climax. The lapping waves of sound that follow are like a serene echo, receding into the far distance. Uranus, the Magician reveals another side of Holst, where the humour is more blatant, almost parodistic. The most dance-like of the movements, the music becomes increasingly heavy-footed until a climax sweeps all away into oblivion. Neptune, the Mystic takes up the other-wordliness that has ended the previous two movements, and sustains it throughout, remote, mysterious, and free of emotion. Out of the void the distant, ethereal sound of women’s voices is heard, and the chorus ends the movement, returning to the emptiness from which the voices came.

Since the music fades away into nothing, why should anyone want to bring it back to life? I have to admit to asking myself this question, and if it had not been for the encouragement of Kent Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra, who commissioned this ‘appendix’ to The Planets, I do not think I would have dared undertake such a project. Pluto, the Renewer - I chose the only appropriate astrological attribute I could find - follows on without a break, before Neptune has quite faded away. There could hardly be music slower or more remote than Neptune, and I chose to make Pluto faster even than Mercury, thinking of solar winds, and perhaps the sudden appearance of comets from even more outlying reaches of the solar system. And, as if Holst’s music was still present in the background, all suddenly fades away to reveal the final chord of Neptune sustained in the distance.

Pluto was only discovered a few years before Holst’s death in 1934. It, and its satellite Charon, are so small that they hardly qualify as planets, and Pluto’s orbit is elliptical, so that some of the time it is closer to us than Neptune. By the strangest of coincidences, the first performance of The Planets with Pluto, in May 2000, took place at exactly the same time that Pluto itself was moving out beyond Neptune for the first time in more than twenty years.

Holst’s early enthusiasm for the poetry of Whitman led him, in 1899, to attempt a portrait in the Overture: Walt Whitman, a work which conveys excitement but lacks any real depth. Wisely he did not try to set Whitman until his language had reached a stage where he could hope to do it justice, and if, in The Mystic Trumpeter of 1904, he still had some way to go to find his own musical style, there can be no doubt of the work’s confidence and individuality. The several influences on the work, notably that of Wagner, are welded by Holst’s passionate feeling for the words into an integrated and convincing whole whose vitality and exuberance have few parallels in British music of the period. In spite of this, The Mystic Trumpeter is one of the most neglected of Holst’s major works: it was first performed in 1905, and revised by Holst in 1912, but remained unplayed and unpublished until Imogen Holst and I edited the music in 1979.

Colin MatthewsHARK! some wild trumpeter - some strange musician,

Hovering unseen in ai
Disc: 1
The Mystic Trumpeter, Op. 18
1 I. Mars, the Bringer of War
2 II. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
3 III. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
4 IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
5 V. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
6 VI. Uranus, the Magician
7 VII. Neptune, the Mystic
8 Pluto - The Renewer
9 The Mystic Trumpeter, Op. 18
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