June 2011

Excerpts from The Planets, Op. 32

"Mars, the Bringer of War" and "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity"

by Gustav Holst

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:

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  6. Uranus, the Magician
  7. 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:

Now compare this to a scene from "Star Wars: A New Hope" when the Imperial troops board Princess Leia's ship (Imperial Attack):

And here's a clip from Saturn:

Compare that to this scene from "Star Wars: A New Hope" where C3PO and R2-D2 are walking in the heat of the desert planet Tatooine (The Desert):

Aside from influencing modern composers, though, you still hear the originals throughout modern culture (as usual, a couple of examples will be provided for extra credit). The two most well known movements of The Planets are Mars and Jupiter, and that's what we'll be listening to today.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

This is a tough one. I had known of this piece in my early teen years. It's possible that I technically first heard this music through the soundtrack to the laser light-show "A Crystal Odyssey" (mentioned in previous months). I know that the "Venus" movement is in that one.

By my sophomore year of High School (1986-1987), I definitely became more familiar with it. It helped that a friend of mine, Dan Torkelson, who had introduced me to the 1970's progressive rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer, introduced me to the album released in 1986 (which was technically, "Emerson, Lake, and Powell"; Carl Palmer was replaced with Kyzo Powell on percussion). As the last track, it featured their rendition of "Mars, the Bringer of War."


So, as I mentioned, we'll just have you listen to two movements. Let's start with the first, and perhaps most well-known movement, "Mars, the Bringer of War":

"Mars, the Bringer of War" from The Planets by Gustav Holst (7:26)

And finally, here is "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity". "Jollity", by the way, means "celebration". Enjoy!

"Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" from The Planets by Gustav Holst (7:36)

For those interested, these recordings were performed by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Jon's Interpretation:

"Mars, the Bringer of War" is one of my favorite examples of how powerful music can be. It also has a special place in my heart for being in 5/4 time. It's nearly impossible for me to listen to this piece without breaking into passionate air-conducting.

I often forget how much I enjoy "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" until I listen to it again. A story is told of a performance of The Planets where Holst leaves the hall to hear the women who are mopping up back stage humming the themes from Jupiter. They are very catchy, but largely majestic themes.

Extra Credit:

I was surprised to find this, as it's not quite 100 years old yet, but, for those who would like to follow along with the music, here is the Conductor's Score (warning: it's a 26 MB file; it could take 5 minutes or more to download):

Conductor's Score for The Planets by Gustav Holst

Now I only had you listen to two movements, because the whole piece is almost an hour long. If you enjoyed these two movements, though, you might want to try some of the others. Uranus is particularly dark and powerful. Many of the others are more subdued and peaceful.

"Venus, the Bringer of Peace" from The Planets by Gustav Holst (7:27)

"Mercury, the Winged Messenger" from The Planets by Gustav Holst (3:48)

"Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age" from The Planets by Gustav Holst (9:10)

"Uranus, the Magician" from The Planets by Gustav Holst (5:49)

"Neptune, the Mystic" from The Planets by Gustav Holst (8:12)

I have a unique recording from 1926 of Gustav Holst himself recording The Planets. Here's "Mars, the Bringer of War" from that recording:

"Mars, the Bringer of War" Performed by Gustav Holst (6:19)

Now, as I had mentioned, Emerson, Lake, and Powell did their own rendition of "Mars, the Bringer of War", and here it is:

"Mars, the Bringer of War" Performed by Emerson, Lake & Powell (7:58)

I also mentioned that I would show some examples of how The Planets had found their way into popular culture. Well, I have three examples for you. The first is from a very obscure animated movie called "Twice Upon a Time". The vultures ("Rudy & the Minions") have a theme that sounds a lot like Mars:

The next two are brought to your courtesy of The Simpsons (I know, you're shocked). The first is an underscore involving Mars. Grampa Simpson tells the story of being stationed in England during World War II. He falls in love with a British woman, and evidently made an excuse to leave her after romancing her by saying he was shipping out in the morning.

And finally, this excerpt features an underscore of Jupiter. Lisa is feeling self-conscious about not having a more focused direction in her interests. This excerpt leads her in the direction of studying astronomy.