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The Planets, Op. 32

The Planets, Op. 32
Born September 21, 1874, in Cheltenham, United Kingdom
Died May 25, 1934, in London, United Kingdom

British composer Gustav Holst had an appetite for the unusual. When he was in his 20s, his passion for Hindu philosophy inspired him to learn the ancient Indo-European language of Sanskrit. In 1913, astrology piqued his interest, and he learned to cast horoscopes.

Holst had been a sickly child. Neuritis in his hands forced him to give up the piano. With the outbreak of war in 1914, he attempted to enlist, but was declared physically unfit. Burdened with poor eyesight and asthma, he channeled his energy into a piece about the planet Mars, the celestial body associated with war. By 1916, he’d written six more planets, excluding the Earth. Calling these compositions “mood pieces,” he conceived them as character portraits reflecting the personality traits or astrological qualities of each planet. Not to be confused with astronomy, Holst’s planets are ordered according to the houses of the zodiac (rather than their distance from the sun).

In 1918, he accepted a military assignment to go to Greece and organize musical activities for the troops. As a send-off, his friends gathered at Queen’s Hall for a private performance of The Planets conducted by Adrian Boult. The first public performance of the complete Planets took place in 1920.

Mars, the Bringer of War
Characterized by aggression and anger, the second-smallest planet is named for the Roman God of War. Mars represents primal energy and a desire to dominate. According to Boult, Mars was the composer’s commentary on the “stupidity of war.”

Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Due to a runaway greenhouse effect, Venus is the warmest planet with a surface temperature of around 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Named for the Roman Goddess of Love, Venus is associated with love, beauty, and harmony.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Closest to the sun, Mercury speeds through the solar system, making four trips around the sun for every Earth year. Associated with information, Mercury is named for the deity who served as messenger to the gods.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
A gas giant named for the King of the Gods, the largest planet represents optimism, prosperity, and generosity. Sometimes called Jove, the planet Jupiter is associated with the word jovial. A prominent theme from this movement was later adapted by the British for the patriotic hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
The most distant that is clearly visible with the naked eye, the ringed planet was thought to be outermost by the ancients. Astrologers associate Saturn with limitations, illness, depression, and restrictions.

Uranus, the Magician
Orbiting the sun on its side, one season on Uranus lasts 21 Earth years. Ironically, its astrological profile is associated with change, upheaval, innovation, and discovery. Uranus rules outer space and the higher mind.

Neptune, the Mystic
Invisible to the naked eye, the existence of Neptune was predicted by mathematics and later confirmed with the use of a telescope. It takes 165 Earth years—two human lifetimes—to complete its orbit around the sun. Neptune is associated with things unseen: intuition, dreams, and the subconscious.

Program notes by © Noel Morris