Gustav Holst: Influence of The Planets
Early Life and Works
Upon his birth in 1874 in Cheltenham England, Gustav Holst's musical direction in life was established. A long line of musicians preceded him in his family, and his father encouraged daily piano practice at an early age. Further study by Gustav on violin and trombone enhanced his early musical career. However, physical disabilities such as asthma and neuritis in his right arm prevented his ambitions as a pianist, but encouraged composition. Gustav was a productive composer and even though he preferred to write for voice, his symphonic score The Planets is his most enduring composition. This is evidenced by his influence on various contemporary media.
Gustav's preference for writing for voice led him to compose a great deal of material in choral music, operas and songs. These compositions outnumbered his orchestral work. His ideas for composition came from a variety of subjects such as folk songs, Tudor music, Sanskrit literature, astrology and contemporary poetry. They inspired his imagination, and helped him produce compositions such as Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, The Cloud Messenger, This I Have Done for My True Love, plus many other choral works. This love for composing for voice also led him to create operas including Savita and The Wandering Scholar. Although he wrote these many choral pieces, he was far less prolific in writing for orchestra, yet his most remembered compositions today are The Planets, a seven part symphony based on our solar system, and St. Paul's Suite.
The seven movements of The Planets comprise a wide range of moods, and include a touch of chorus in the last movement of Neptune. Power and brutality describe the opening movement of Mars, The Bringer of War. Mars embodies the idea of mechanised war and achieves this through a faster than normal march tempo. In contrast, Venus, The Bringer of Peace creates a gentle atmosphere where love and appreciation of beauty is apparent. Mercury, The Winged Messenger, picks up the tempo again by using alternating 3/4 and 6/8 rhythms, and is free and light in mood. Slowing down the pace slightly is Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity which has been described as "more plodding and persevering than brilliant and active" ( Felts). In contrast to Jupiter's joviality, Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age adds sagacity with a slow and steady pace which begins in the distance, and creates a feeling of acceptance and serenity. To lighten Saturn's heavy atmosphere, Uranus, the Magician enters with magic and the metaphysical where wisdom and knowledge are infinite. Finishing this suite of variety is Neptune, The Mystic where a choir of angels sing a wordless and mysterious universe as they fade into the cosmos.
Despite his ability to write an enduring and insightful symphonic score, it took Holst four years from the time he finished the composition in 1917until it brought him any fame or monetary value. The times didn't allow for royalties or performing fees, and neither later fame nor continuous dedication to his love of composing and performing earned him a living. In 1904 he accepted a Musical Director position at the St. Paul's Girls' School as a singing teacher. This post he kept until his death in 1934. Gustav was well loved by his students, and he truly enjoyed the position. On two visits to the United States he also lectured at the University of Michigan, and held a six month term as lecturer in Harvard. His desire to serve his country in WWI was rejected due to his neuritis and bad eyesight, so be became conductor of the military band and toured Europe aiding in the war effort through music. Throughout the period of WWI he continued to write The Planets, starting Mars just prior to the war .
Influence of The Planets
Little did Holst realise how far reaching his efforts of composition during the Great War would stretch. Haunting references from The Planets can be heard in many science fiction movie themes today such as Star Wars and particularly in The Man Who Fell to Earth starring David Bowie. The Progressive Rock Era owes a great deal to the efforts of classical composers such as Mussorgsky and Holst. These seventies composers pushed the limits of rock by emphasising composition over basic song structure, and in fact added the classics to their repertoire. King Crimson used Holst's Mars as a regular feature in their concerts. A BBC production entitled The Planets owes most of its music background in its eight part study of our planetary system to Gustav's composition. From modern day poetry inspiration, to TV documentaries, various artistic disciplines have been influenced by Holst's symphonic work.
Holst's slow but eventual international recognition after 1921 earned him more financial stability, yet he remained somewhat uncomfortable and suspicious of it. When asked for autographs he would reply by giving out a tiny slip of paper stating that he did not give autographs. If not for the efforts of his daughter Imogen after his death, the world may have missed the inspired visions this composer offered. Thanks to her his visions continue to inspire many in their varied fields of artistic expression.
1. Lorin Maazel/ Orchestre National de France/ 1984 CBS Records/ Holst: The Planets /CD Jacket
2. Biography by David L Felts/ Gustav Holst (1874 - 1934)/ Online/ Feb.22,2002 musicweb.uk.net/holst