Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Planets

Gustav Holst
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

We mark the premiere performance – on September 28, 1918 – 102 years ago today – of Gustav Holst’s The Planets in Queen’s Hall, London, under the baton of Adrian Boult. To hear Holst (1874-1934) tell it, The Planets became an albatross around his neck; a monkey on his back; a large, gnarly grain of sand in his skivvies: it made him internationally famous and remained so popular that nothing he composed for the remainder of his life ever came close to approaching its popularity. Holst went to his grave believing that as far as the public was concerned, he was hardly more than a one-hit wonder. 

As a composer and a man, Holst presents us with something of an enigma. In The Planets, we hear a composer of great passion, ecstatic joy, ethereal lyricism, and stunning violence. In its massive, seven-movement design, The Planets has no real precedent; it is quite original. Likewise, Holst’s compositional merging of Wagnerian expressive oomph, English folk song, and Hindu mysticism set him apart from every other English composer of his time. (Four our info, Holst was a student of Sanskrit literature who, among other Hindu-inspired works, set to music hymns from the Rig Veda; he composed a tone poem entitled Indra (1906); a major choral and orchestral work built around Sanskrit poetry, The Cloud Messenger (1912); and wrote the libretti and music for two Hindu-inspired operas, Sita (1906, based on texts from the Ramayana) and Sāvitri, based on a story from the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata.)

Though powerfully influenced by contemporary musical currents (The Planets, which was composed between 1914 and 1916, owes much to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring [of 1912] and Claude Debussy’s Three Nocturnes for Orchestra [of 1899]), Holst avoided modernisms for their own sake in The Planets, believing that music was an essential means of human communication and that a composer must be willing and able to communicate with his/her larger community. According to Holst’s best friend, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958):

 “He loved his fellow creatures too much to allow his message to them to appear in vague or incomprehensible terms.”

In sum: Holst was a composer whose music displays overt passion, joy, lyricism, and violence; music of considerable originality that effectively synthesizes Wagnerian expressive power, English folk song, Sanskrit literature, and Hindu mysticism. 

We’d expect such a person to be omnivorous in his tastes, an extroverted sensualist in his desires, and worldly in his mien.

As a man, Gustav Holst was almost the exact opposite of those expectations. …

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