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Inside The Music: The Planets

The 2015/16 Bristol International Classical Season closes in spectacular fashion as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra comes calling with a programme jam-packed with space-themed classics. Editor of BBC Music Magazine Oliver Condy delves into the music on the programme and sheds some light on how these heavenly bodies  came into being.

R Strauss ‘Sunrise’ from Also Sprach Zarathustra

When Alex North, the composer commissioned to write the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, turned up to the film’s premiere in 1968, he had no inkling that his music had been substituted at the last minute for the director’s original musical inspirations. It was, he later said, a devastating moment. Kubrick had had Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra at the back of his mind for the opening to his epic film and North, under instruction, had done his best to produce something stylistically similar, but to Kubrick’s mind nothing could ultimately better Strauss’s masterpiece. And so, along with its use of music by Strauss’s namesake Johann (no relation), 2001 became famous overnight for its impactful use of classical music while North’s soundtrack was consigned to the cutting room floor.

Also Sprach was a sensational choice by Kubrick; it’s hard to think that even he would believe that, subsequently, earthrise would thereafter continue to be associated with the rumbling bottom C (scored for organ, double bass, contra-bassoon and bass drum) and three-note trumpet fanfare that heralds in Strauss’s tone poem. Even more surprising was Kubrick’s choice of The Blue Danube – its lilting waltz, he explained later, conjured up the spinning of satellites in space. Before 2001, space exploration was seen as something magnificent, awesome… but graceful? Kubrick made it so.

Holst The Planets Suite

Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite shares something with the music of Strauss R and J – its intended purpose was also never to represent the physical appearance of space and our planetary system. What Holst set out to achieve was a portrait of the astrological influences of each planet – their human characters, as it were. He was a keen astrologer, and was fond of casting horoscopes in his spare time. The music, however, has the sweep and ambition of the greatest of Hollywood film soundtracks: descriptive, highly evocative and accessible; no wonder we all think of the red planet during the angry music for ‘Mars’, or of Jupiter’s domineering presence or the endlessness of space at the end of ‘Neptune’. It all seems to fit together remarkably well.

The Planets seemed to flow, as if by celestial inspiration, from Holst’s pen during the summer of 1914 – up until then, the English composer had been desperate for a success, not least because he needed the money (Vaughan Williams had once lent him enough to take a holiday in Algiers), but his work as director of music of St Paul’s Girls’ School in London also took up much of his time. Now, however, things were different and a war was on its way (The Planets didn’t get a full performance until 1920). The old order was slipping away, and British music needed to escape from its Elgarian idyll.

And so Holst got to work, the suite’s first movement, ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ showing everyone that, indeed, British music would never be the same again. From the very start, the music’s rages start brewing with an insistent single note G, enhanced by the threatening – and innovative – sound of violin bow wood on strings, the noise, perhaps, of an advancing army. Bombs, guns, panic – they’re all apparently there in the music, and yet Holst wrote this movement before the war had started… His inspirations were, in fact, not the terror of mechanised warfare, but astrological books by Alan Leo in which Mars is described as ‘the Destroyer angel’ and ‘the wrath of God’. ‘Mars’ is elemental and primitive – if it shocks us today, imagine what it did to audiences back in 1920.

Alan Leo describes Venus as ‘the unifier’: the planet ‘produces order out of disorder, harmony out of discord whether in action, feeling or intellect.’ And so Holst’s movement, ‘Venus, the Bringer of Peace’ is in start contrast to ‘Mars’, although the musical language isn’t entirely peaceful, suggesting that resolution is still some way off…

The scurrying of the strings and woodwind at the start of the third movement provide the flavour for ‘Mercury: the Winged Messenger’, perhaps the part of the suite that is most ‘Holstian’ in its musical language and textures. That said, it’s the following movement that most resonates with audiences – ‘Jupiter: the Bringer of Jollity’ paints the picture of ‘happiness and abundance’ and ‘devotion through service.’ The famous tune at the heart of movement (known as ‘Thaxted’ in its hymn form) is, according to Holst, ‘a musical embodiment of ceremonial jollity’. From the start, its energy seems as boundless and episodic as a fireworks display, a sort of joyous chaos.

‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’ was Holst’s favourite movement. The opening bars, ninth chords played by flutes and harp, immediately conjure up the pendulum of a clock, counting out the seconds of our lives. Saturn, according to Holst’s astrological books, is ‘the subduer’, with the music moving through another grand hymn-like passage towards horror before calm, resignation and, finally, acceptance.

‘Uranus, the Magician’ possesses an uncanny resemblance to Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice with its bumbling rhythms and ethereal harmonies. Alan Leo describes people under this planet’s influence as ‘eccentric, strange and erratic’. The final movement, ‘Neptune, the Mystic’ seems to float us to the outer reaches of our solar system, a far reach from the ravages of Mars. Holst’s haunting dissonances give the impression of a satellite disappearing into deep space, the wordless female chorus appearing from nowhere and fading to nothing at the end giving an unnerving sense of endlessness.

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Holst doesn’t include the Sun, Moon (both planets in astrology), Earth or Pluto. While we’re not sure why Earth doesn’t figure, Pluto was only discovered in 1930 and was promptly declared a planet, by which time Holst expressed no interest whatsoever in composing a further movement. In any case, Pluto was demoted from its planet status in 2006, making Holst’s masterpiece complete once more.