We’ve already discussed tone poems (if you missed it, see our OrKIDstra page about Scheherazade). Sometimes, like in Scheherazade, tone poems portray stories in music. But sometimes, composers have chosen to portray characters, instead— their friends (like in Elgar’s Enigma Variations), famous people, or mythical figures.
The Planets is an orchestral suite (a “suite” is a collection of short musical pieces) in which each movement portrays one of the planets in our solar system. The first thing you’ll notice is that there are only seven movements.
Holst wasn’t really ahead of his time in leaving out Pluto… the planet just wasn’t discovered until 1930, and Holst wrote The Planets in 1918. Earth, of course, didn’t make it into the suite, because he was only interested in the planets you could see in the night sky, not the one we walk on.
The second thing you’ll notice is that each planet is given a description, and sometimes it doesn’t sound very much like what we know about these planets! You see, in The Planets, Holst wasn’t trying to portray what it would be like to be on these other planets, though that would be a really cool piece.
Instead, he wrote music that reflected what he saw as the “personality” of each planet. He based these personalities on a mix of mythical stories, including ancient Greek and Roman mythology and astrology.
In fact, the planets are arranged in the order of the zodiac, which is the pattern of stars that ancient (and even some modern) people who believed in astrology thought could help you tell the future.
This also creates a balanced structure for the whole piece. Jupiter sits at the center, and the planets in “balance” around it mirror one another:
Mars is rhythmic and full of energy, whereas Neptune is still and nearly motionless.
Venus is elegant, and Uranus is wild.
Mercury is playful, and Saturn is serious.
Let’s take a look at each of the planets!
Mars, the Bringer of War
Mars was the ancient Roman god of war. The Planets was written during World War I, which was in many ways the first modern war. Listen for the horror of machine guns and rumbling tanks in the aggressive rhythms, with lots of brass and percussion.
This movement is also unusual because it’s written in a 5/4 meter—meaning that the music is broken up into units of five beats (listen for the “ONE-and-a two three four-and five” rhythm in the strings at the opening) instead of the more usual four beats or three beats.
This music became even more popular when it inspired the score for one of the most famous scenes in movie history.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
The god of war is followed by the goddess of love. Holst paired six of the planets up in pairs like this.
The brass and percussion of the first movement contrast against flute and harp here. The angry militant rhythms of Mars have now become slower and smoother, reflecting peace and love.
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
In Roman mythology, Mercury was the god of communication and commerce. He wore boots with wings that allowed him to be really fast when he had to deliver messages between the gods.
Holst represents this character with the shortest and fastest movement. Lots of high, agile instruments give the impression of his swiftness and athleticism. See if you can identify the flute, harp, and glockenspiel!
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
Jupiter was the king of the gods. Holst decided, based on his astrological beliefs, that the planet was responsible for happiness and celebration. The music here is majestic and grand—perfect for the king of the gods.
The central melody of “Jupiter” has been used for hymns and other songs, including the theme song for the Rugby World Cup.
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
This unsettling music becomes a march leading to death. Holst said this was his favorite movement.
Uranus, the Magician
The galloping rhythms show that Holst meant for this magician to be a trickster!
Neptune, the Mystic
This movement is the most mysterious, and also the most innovative. Holst did lots of new and interesting things in the music here. The strings and harp have smooth, almost motionless melodies.
Interestingly, Holst also adds a choir of women… but you won’t see them in a performance, because they’re supposed to sing offstage. At the first performance, the audience didn’t know where the sound was coming from!
At the end, Holst tries another new effect: a fade-out. Fade-outs are normal for us in 2020, but in 1918, very few people had ever heard recordings or radio. So when the women’s voices slowly faded out to silence, it was magic! Holst made this effect happen by instructing the women to sing from a room adjacent to the stage, and the door was slowly closed until you couldn’t hear them anymore.
What do you think?
Holst didn’t write any music for a few really important parts of our solar system. Imagine that someone asked you to compose music for:
What characteristics do you think each of these would have? What would the music sound like?