A photograph of Gustav Holst
The Planets is probably Gustav Holst’s most famous work. It captures the essence of each Planet brilliantly; the musical themes are well known and have influenced later works. The piece has been described as an “orchestral suite” but it includes a wordless female chorus alongside the large orchestra. Holst is sometimes described as an underappreciated composer, but The Planets is a piece that’s still very popular – with Jupiter reaching number 7 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame in 2023. It’s a piece that is recommended in England’s Model Music Curriculum. 
 
 
Image: By Herbert Lambert (1881–1936) - National Portrait Gallery - Portrait NPG Ax7745; Gustav Theodore Holst, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7667183 

Holst 

Gustav von Holst, who was born on 21 September 1874 in Cheltenham, Gloucester,. He came from a family of musicians. His father, Adolphe was a professional musician, an organist and choir master at All Saint’s Church in Cheltenham. His mother, Clara had been a pupil of Adolphe and was a singer and pianist. 
 
Holst He began his musical studies on piano and violin, but taking a dislike to the latter, he later learned trombone, hoping it would help with his asthma. He started composing when he was aboutat the age of 12 years old, starting work on an ambitious orchestral work. which This was not completed, but he did write pieces for piano and organ as well as anthems. 
 
Following lessons in writing musical counterpoint at Oxford, Holst gained a place at the Royal College of Music. He had hoped to get the Composition Scholarship but it was taken that year by Samuel Coleridge Taylor
In 1895, Holst met Vaughan Williams, the fellow composers became great friends and influenced each other’s work. 
 
Holst earned his living initially through playing church organ and playing the trombone with various orchestras, including the Carl Rosa Opera Company and Scottish Opera. Vaughan Williams felt this influenced his orchestral writing: 
 
“…Holst is above all an orchestral composer, and that sure touch which distinguishes his orchestral writing is due largely to the fact that he has been an orchestral player; he has learnt his art, both technically and in substance, not at second hand from text books and models, but from actual live experience." 
 
In 1901, Holst married Isobel Harrison, who he had met when he conducted the Hammersmith Socialist Choir, and in 1907, they had a daughter, Imogen, who became a great champion of her father’s work as well as a composer, arranger, conductor, teacher, musicologist, and festival administrator. 
 
From 1905, Holst took a number of teaching roles, including director of music at St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, where he served until his death. He was a pioneer for women’s education and, inspired by Adrian Boult’s work at the Royal College of Music, wanted to invite the conductor to give lessons at St Paul’s Girls’ School, stating: "It would be glorious if the SPGS turned out the only women conductors in the world!" 
A photograph of Holst and Vaughan Williams in the countryside
Image: William Gillies Whittaker (1876–1944), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 
Holst wanted to join the First World War effort, but was rejected as unfit for military service,; however in 1918, the YMCA required volunteers. His name ‘“von Holst’” was considered too German, so he changed his name to “‘Holst’” by deed poll and became the YMCA’s musical organiser for the Near East. 
 
After the war, Holst continued teaching and composing, and his fame rose, including in the US – though he was not really comfortable with his celebrity and he turned down many honours. 
 
His works took inspiration from a range of writers including Thomas Hardy, Robert Bridges, Walt Whitman. He also completed a number of pieces inspired by Sanskrit texts, some using his own translations. Later works were not as well received as some of his earlier works: for example Egdon Heath, inspired by Thomas Hardy, was not well received in New York. 
 
In 1932, Holst was taken ill and reduced his musical activities. One of his last compositions was the Brook Green Suite, written in 1933 for St Paul’s Girls’ School orchestra. Holst died at the age of 59 of heart failure on 25 May 1934. 

The Planets 

Holst’s interest in the solar system was sparked by a visit to Spain, where he was introduced to astrology by the writer Clifford Bax. 
 
Holst began work on The Planets in mid -1914, starting with Mars. This movement was followed by Venus and Jupiter in the latter part of the year. Saturn and Uranus were written in mid-1915, Neptune later that year and Mercury in early 1916. Holst’s teaching commitments are given as one reason why the work took so long to be completed, but he also struggled with choric neuritis in his right arm, making writing difficult. Holst also commented to Bax in 1926: 
 
“… whether it’s good or bad, grew in my mind slowly—like a baby in a woman’s womb ... For two years I had the intention of composing that cycle, and during those two years it seemed of itself more and more definitely to be taking form.” 
The work was orchestrated in 1917, but the parts were only prepared for the premier in on 29th September 1918. As a leaving gift before his departure to the Near East, Holst was given a great opportunity: his friend, the conductor Adrian Boult reminisced,: "Just before the Armistice, Gustav Holst burst into my office: 'Adrian, the YMCA are sending me to Salonica quite soon and Balfour Gardiner, bless his heart, has given me a parting present consisting of the Queen's Hall, full of the Queen's Hall Orchestra for the whole of a Sunday morning. So we're going to do The Planets, and you've got to conduct'.” 
 
The parts were prepared with help from Vally Lasker and Nora Day, two of Holst’s colleagues from St Paul’s Girl’s School, and the musicians only had two hours to learn their parts. The premier took place on 29 September 1918 to an audience of 250. 
 
A further public performance on 27 February 1919, given by Boult, showcased five of the seven movements – he felt that for such a new, challenging work "half an hour of it was as much as they could take in". The first complete performance of the suite at a public concert was on 15 November 1920 performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Albert Coates. The first complete performance conducted by the composer was on 13 October 1923, with the Queen's Hall Orchestra. 

Instrumentation 

The work is scored for a very large orchestra: 
 
• 2 flutes, 
• 3rd flute doubling piccolo 
• 4th flute doubling piccolo and alto flute 
• 2 oboes, 
• 3rd oboe doubling bass oboe, 
• 1 cor anglais (also known as English Horn – noted on the score as E.H.) 
• 3 clarinets 
• 1 bass clarinet 
• 3 bassoons 
• 1 contrabassoon (also known as Double Bassoon – noted on the score as Dbn) 
• 6 horns 
• 4 trumpets 
• 2 trombones 
• 1 bass trombone 
• 1 euphonium (also known as tenor tuba – noted on the score as Ten. Tub) 
• 1 tuba (also known as bass tuba – noted on the score as Bass Tub.) 
• 2 timpanists 
• 3 percussionists playing triangle, side drum, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, gong, tubular bells, glockenspiel, xylophone 
• 1 organ 
• 1 celesta 
• 2 harps 
• 1st violins 
• 2nd violins 
• violas 
• cellos 
• double basses 
Plus, for Neptune – two off- stage three-part women’s choruses (two soprano sections and one alto section in each). 

Mars, Bringer of War 

Mars is the first movement of The Planets and it starts the work intensely, with the reflection of war throughout. The work was written before the outbreak of World War One, but as with other pieces written in this period (such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, written in 1913), it seems to foresee the coming conflict. 
The piece is in 5/4 – as it is still quite unusual for works to be written with 5 beats in a bar, the piece can still make us feel unsteady, particularly with its march-like feel. The 5 beats are emphasised by a repeated figure or ostinato, which begins on one of the timpani, the strings and the two harps. 
The ostinato rhythm from Mars by Holst
The string sound is particularly worth focussing on as the players use a technique called col legno which means ‘with the wood’. Instead of using the hair on the bow to move across the strings, the players tap the strings with the wooden part of the bow. Read more about this technique here
 
A sense of menace is felt when the low woodwind (bassoons and contract bassoon) and French horns start playing long notes, joined by the bass oboe (an instrument that is not used in many pieces!). They are then joined by the bass clarinet, cor anglais (English Horn) and then the oboes, as the volume increases moving from p (piano – quiet) to mf (mezzo-forte – medium loud). The chords move around the orchestra with the trombones starting quietly, joined by the trumpets, then horns, tenor tuba and bass tuba, then flutes, oboes, English horn, clarinets and bass clarinet, again building from p to mf. 
 
The work has inspired many composers, but one who seemed to be particularly inspired is John Williams in his score for Star Wars. Can you hear the similarities between Mars and the Imperial March? 
An image of a violinist playing col legno or with the wood of the bow
A violin playing col legno. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Activities 

Feeling the pulse or beat is a key skill for musicians. This piece offers a great opportunity to really focus on rhythm. 
 
This activity can be approached in two ways: 
1. Listen to the piece and see if the pupils can pick out the ostinato rhythm – tapping the rhythm on their hand using 3 fingers or speaking the rhythm using the sound “d” or “t”. 
2. Or you can use the score, the timpani part or image of the ostinato on a screen for the pupils to follow as they play or say the rhythm. 
An image of the ostinato rhythm from Mars by Holst
When learning repeated rhythms, some musicians use words to help them focus. Pupils could make up an 8- syllable phrase to help them remember the Mars ostinato. 
 
Perhaps the most famous ostinato in Classical music is Ravel’s Bolero. The piece starts with a single snare drum before the flute enters with the first melody. The piece showcases various instruments and sections of the orchestra as the piece builds, always with the snare drum rhythm underpinning the music. 
Ostinato is a technique often used by composers to build tension. For older students, a good example of this is Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony known as the ‘“Leningrad’”. It characterises the horrors of war, having been written in Russia in 1941. In the first movement a snare drum begins a quiet ostinato accompanied by a flute (echoes of Bolero) in the second theme which builds to suggest an invasion. 
 
This section begins at 7 minutes 22 seconds in this performance by Marin Alsop and the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra).: 
Or at 6 minutes 12 seconds in this recording by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic Orchestra: 
Further reading 
• This Classical Music Inspired John Williams During The Scoring Of 'Star Wars’ - https://www.cultureslate.com/explained/this-classical-music-inspired-john-williams-during-the-scoring-of-star-wars 
• Scottish Chamber Orchestra – Holst the Planets, Mars - https://www.sco.org.uk/news/explore-music-at-home-holst-the-planets-mars 
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