Gustav Holst was born in 1874 in Gloucestershire, England. He has written over 200 works, including operas, ballets, marches, and even choral pieces. But the only piece most people know him for now is a seven-movement orchestral work called "The Planets".
"The Planets" is broken up, as I'd mentioned, into seven movements:
- Mars, the Bringer of War
- Venus, the Bringer of Peace
- Mercury, the Winged Messenger
- Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
- Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
- Uranus, the Magician
- Neptune, the Mystic
You'll notice that Earth and Pluto are not mentioned. You'll also notice odd titles for each of the planets (i.e., "the Bringer of War", "the Bringer of Peace", etc.). This makes more sense when you realize that Holst was not writing about the planets, as celestial bodies.
In 1913, Holst became interested in astrology. Astrology is a mystical belief that our attitudes and futures can be determined by the position of the stars and planets. Horoscopes (daily predictions) are part of astrology. Holst used to cast his friends' horoscopes for fun. It was this interest that spurred the composition of The Planets.
The idea is that, for example, when the planet Venus is in a certain position, it means peace. When the planet Saturn is in a certain position, it describes old age (or perhaps far into the future). And so on. Holst used astrologer Alan Leo's book What is a Horoscope? to help come up with his descriptions. It was these descriptions that would form the basis of each movement. He would finish his work sometime between 1914 and 1916, and it would have its public debut in 1918 at the Queen's Hall in London.
Pluto is technically an astrological sign, but it wasn't discovered as a planet until 1930. At that time, Holst was asked if he was going to write another movement for the new planet, but at the time, Holst was a little frustrated with The Planets, because that's all he was known for. He never wrote another movement. Just as well, I suppose, as Pluto was denounced as a planet in 2006.
Holst was well known for using unusual time signatures. We're all very used to hearing music that has a 2-beat, a 3-beat, or a 4-beat. Holst often used 5-beat and 7-beat signatures. The "Mars" movement is actually a 5-beat (5/4). If it sounds a little off to you, that's why. It starts as a 3-beat, but then it only does 2 to follow (for a total of 5).
While The Planets is extremely well known, it has also influenced a great deal of composers who would later write music for science fiction movies, most notably John Williams. Most people nowadays, when they listen to The Planets, might think "hey, that sounds like Star Wars". And they'd be right, only it's the other way around (i.e., Star Wars sounds like The Planets). There's good reason for this. Clearly, Williams was influenced by Wagner and Holst, as well as other composers. But also, when George Lucas first worked with John Williams for Star Wars, Lucas would initially go over the storyboard with Williams before the music had been written, and he would put well-known classical works in where he thought it fit the mood. This would give Williams and idea of the type of music Lucas had in mind for a given scene. "Mars" has an uncanny resemblence to "The Imperial March" from "The Empire Strikes Back" (see May 2009), but it even came into play in "A New Hope" beforehand. Williams would later acknowledge that "Mars" was one of the pieces that Lucas had used as a filler until Williams had written the score.
While the "Mars" influence on "The Imperial March" may be obvious, there are other examples, too. Here are just a couple of "compare and contrast" examples:
First, here's a clip from Mars: