The Planets

The Planets Op. 32 is a seven-movement orchestral suite by the British composer Gustav Holst, written between 1914 and 1916. The Planets is the most-performed composition by an English composer. Its first complete public performance occurred during World War I on 10 October 1918 in Birmingham, with Appleby Matthews conducting. However, an earlier invitation-only premiere was held on 29 September 1918 in the Queen's Hall in London, conducted by Adrian Boult.

The elaborate score of The Planets produces unusual, complex sounds by using some out-of-the-ordinary instruments in the large orchestra (similar to Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6 of 1906), such as a bass oboe, two timpani players, celesta, xylophone, tubular bells, and organ (see Instrumentation below). Holst had been influenced by Igor Stravinsky, who used four oboes and four bassoons in his The Rite of Spring (1912–13), and by Schoenberg's 1909 composition Five Pieces for Orchestra.


The concept of the work is astrological rather than astronomical (which is why Earth is not included). The idea was suggested to Holst by Clifford Bax, who introduced him to astrology when the two were amongst a small group of English artists holidaying in Majorca in the spring of 1913; Holst became quite a devotee of the subject, and liked to cast friends' horoscopes for fun. Each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche, not the Roman deities. Holst also used Alan Leo's book What is a Horoscope? as a springboard for his own ideas, as well as for the subtitles (i.e., "The Bringer of...") for the movements.

The Planets as a work in progress was originally scored for a piano duet, except for "Neptune", which was scored for a single organ, as Holst believed that the sound of the piano was too harsh for a world as mysterious and distant as Neptune. Holst then scored the suite for a large orchestra, and it was in this incarnation that it became enormously popular. Holst's use of orchestration was very imaginative and colourful, showing the influence of Schoenberg and other continental composers of the day rather than his English predecessors. The influence of Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring is especially notable. These new (at least for British audiences) sonorities helped make the suite an instant success. Although The Planets remains Holst's most popular work, the composer himself did not count it among his best creations and later in life complained that its popularity had completely surpassed his other works. He did, however, conduct a recorded performance of the suite in the early 1920s, and he was partial to his own favourite movement, "Saturn".

During the last weeks of World War I, the private orchestral premiere of The Planets suite was held at rather short notice on 29 September 1918, in the Queen's Hall. It was hastily rehearsed; the musicians first saw the complicated music only two hours before the performance. Despite this auspicious venue, it was a comparably intimate affair, attended by around 250 invited associates, with a chamber orchestra and choir conducted by Sir Adrian Boult at the request of his friends—Holst, and financial backer and fellow composer Balfour Gardiner. An ecstatically-received public concert was given a few weeks later while Holst was overseas, but out of the seven movements, only five were played. After the war, the first complete public performance occurred on 10 October 1920, in Birmingham. Holst himself conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a recorded performance of The Planets in 1926. In 2003, this was released on compact disc by IMP.


The work is scored for a large orchestra consisting of four flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolo, fourth also doubling "bass flute in G"), three oboes (the third doubling bass oboe), English horn, three clarinets in A and B flat, bass clarinet in B flat, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns in F, four trumpets in C, three trombones, tenor tuba in B flat (today usually played on euphonium), bass tuba, timpani (six drums in total, requiring two players), bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, chimes, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, organ, two harps and strings.

For Neptune, two three-part women's choruses, located in an adjoining room which is to be screened from the audience, are required.

Non-orchestral versions

  • One piano, four hands: "... John York found an engraved copy of Holst's own piano duet arrangement.
  • One harp: Holst's own solo harp arrangement.
  • Two pianos: For a recording of a two-piano version, see Naxos-catalog-item-8.554369 Holst originally composed the suite for two pianos. He had two of his friends play the four-hands version to aid in composition.
  • Organ: transcription by Peter Sykes.
  • Brass ensemble: the Empire Brass has recorded a shortened version of Jupiter.
  • Brass band: the Black Dyke Band has recorded and performed the complete suite in a transcription by Stephen Roberts.
  • Symphonic band transcriptions written by Holst himself of Mars and Jupiter exist and are currently published by Boosey and Hawkes. A transcription for symphonic wind ensemble of the complete seven-movement suite was written by Merlin Patterson in 1998. (see Media below)
  • Drum and bugle corps: Since 1959, many drum corps have performed selections from The Planets. The most notable performances were the 1985 and 1995 Cavaliers., and the 2008 Crossmen.
  • Synthesizers: Japanese keyboardist and composer Isao Tomita recorded the full score using only synthesizers.


The suite has seven movements, each of them named after a planet and its corresponding Roman deity (see also Planets in astrology):

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  6. Uranus, the Magician
  7. Neptune, the Mystic

The order of the movements corresponds to increasing distance of their eponymous planets from the Earth. Some commentators have suggested that this is intentional, with the anomaly of Mars preceding Mercury being a device to make the first four movements match the form of a symphony. One alternative explanation may be the ruling of astrological signs of the zodiac by the planets. If the zodiac signs are listed along with their ruling planets in the traditional order starting with Aries, ignoring duplication, Pluto (then undiscovered and now de-planetised), and the luminaries (the Sun and the Moon), then the order of the movements matches. Another possibility, this time from an astronomical perspective, is that the first three movements, representing the inner terrestrial planets, are ordered according to their decreasing distance from the Sun. The remaining movements, representing the gas giants that lie beyond the asteroid belt, are ordered by increasing distance from the Sun. Critic David Hurwitz offers an alternative explanation for the piece's structure: that "Jupiter" is the centrepoint of the suite and that the movements on either side are in mirror images. Thus "Mars" involves motion and "Neptune" is static; "Venus" is sublime while "Uranus" is vulgar, and "Mercury" is light and scherzando while "Saturn" is heavy and plodding. This hypothesis is lent credence by the fact that the two outer movements, "Mars" and "Neptune", are both written in rather unusual quintuple meter.

"Neptune" was the first piece of music to have a fade-out ending. Holst stipulates that the women's choruses are "to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed", and that the final bar (scored for choruses alone) is "to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance". Although commonplace today, the effect bewitched audiences in the era before widespread recorded sound—after the initial 1918 run-through, Holst's daughter Imogen (in addition to watching the charwomen dancing in the aisles during "Jupiter") remarked that the ending was "unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women's voices growing fainter and fainter... until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence".


Pluto was discovered in 1930, four years before Holst's death, and was hailed by astronomers as a new planet. Holst expressed no interest in writing a movement for it—he had become disillusioned by the popularity of the suite, believing that it took too much attention away from his other works.

Numerous other composers have written their own Pluto movements. In 2000, the Hallé Orchestra commissioned the composer Colin Matthews, a Holst specialist, to write a new eighth movement, which Matthews entitled Pluto, the Renewer. Dedicated to Imogen Holst, Gustav Holst's daughter, it was first performed in Manchester on 11 May 2000, with Kent Nagano conducting the Hallé Orchestra. Matthews changed the ending of Neptune slightly so that the movement would lead directly into Pluto.

In August 2006, the International Astronomical Union for the first time defined the term "planet", which resulted in a change in Pluto's status, from a planet to a dwarf planet. Thus, Holst's original work is once again a complete representation of all the extra-terrestrial planets in the Solar System.

Adaptations of The Planets


Holst was one of the first to adapt his music to fit other causes, when he adapted the work in 1921 to fit the metre of a poem beginning "I vow to thee, my country". The poem was written between 1908 and 1918 by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice and became known as a response to the human cost of World War I. The hymn was first performed in 1925 and quickly became a patriotic anthem. Another adaptation would be the tune used for the hymn "O God beyond all praising". Although Holst had no such intentions when he originally composed the music, adapted it he had, and others would follow suit throughout the 20th Century.

Another use of his music for a hymn was Thaxted, in which the slow middle section of Jupiter was arranged to form the hymn tune. The song was named after the village where Holst had lived for many years.

Rugby Union

Part of "Jupiter" was selected in 1991 as the theme of the Rugby Union World Cup under the title "World in Union".

In modern media


Bill Conti's score for the 1983 motion picture The Right Stuff quotes "Mars" and "Jupiter" in Track 4, "Glenn's Flight".

Cliff Eidelman's 1991 score to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was inspired by the sound of The Planets, a copy of which was given to him by director Nicholas Meyer.

"Saturn" was featured toward the end of the Mark Wahlberg movie The Yards as Wahlberg's character was riding on a subway train.

Part of "Venus" is used in the film Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Parts of "Venus" & "Jupiter" were used in the Japanese Film Rainbow Song.

Elements of "Mars" were incorporated by Led Zeppelin's guitarist Jimmy Page into the middle of his composition "Dazed and Confused", as can be heard in Led Zeppelin's 1976 film The Song Remains the Same.

Parts of "Jupiter" were used in the 2006 Japanese live action drama Nodame Cantabile.

Part of "Jupiter" was used in the 2006 festival film Cashback.


During the second season of The Venture Bros, during the episode "Hate Floats", Monarch Henchmen 21 and 24 sing a passage from "Mars" to celebrate their being called back to duty. In the first episode of the third season a portion of "Jupiter" is used to end the episode.

"Mars" was used as the title theme to the first two of Nigel Kneale's iconic Quatermass television series of the 1950s.

"Jupiter" was remixed by Pleiades Production for use in Dance Dance Revolution SuperNova 2. "Jupiter" was also used as the theme for "Starstuff", a 1980 children's television program.

"Saturn" is playing in The Simpsons episode "'Scuse Me While I Miss the Sky" when Lisa is in the museum and first develops her inspiration for astronomy. "Jupiter" was also played in the same episode shortly after "Saturn" was played.

Parts of "Jupiter" were used in the interval performance during the Eurovision Song Contest 1998 in Birmingham, UK. Among the performers was violinist Vanessa-Mae.

"Mars" is used in the Space: 1999 episode "Space Brain".

Video games

During the 1980s, material from The Planets made its way into several video games for the Commodore 64. G-Force (1984) and The First Starfighter (1986) featured sections of Holst's Jupiter. The Caverns of Eriban (1985) used part of Holst's Mercury. Similarly, Plasmatron (1987) and Wicked (1989) borrowed sections of Holst's Mars. The games didn't use a recorded symphony version of Holst's music, as home computer's weren't developed in that way yet. Rather, the game designers of the 1980s played the part of musicians and adapted the music to their instrument, the home computer.

Mars was featured in later video games, including Commander Keen 5: The Armageddon Machine (1991), Epic (1992), Outpost (1994), Diablo II: Lord of Destruction (2001) (in which the song "Siege" contains numerous allusions and rhythmic resemblances to Mars, Escape Velocity Nova (2002), and Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII (2001–07) for Playstation 2.


The theme from "Jupiter" was used in an Australian advertisement in early 2008 for Bundaberg Rum, as well as an American TV advertisement for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in 2007.

Modern music

Portions of The Planets, particularly "Mars" (with its pounding 5/4 ostinato), have been covered and quoted extensively in heavy metal music, progressive rock, and electronica.

  • Heavy metal band Triumph used a portion of the sequence for the opening section, titled War March, and the ending sequence can be heard during the third part, titled Minstrels Lament of their three-part epic, The City from the original Rock and Roll Machine album.
  • Frank Zappa playing with The Mothers of Invention plays the refrain of Jupiter in "The Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin" on Absolutely Free. This segment is excluded from the live version continued within "Call Any Vegetable" on Just Another Band From LA [1972].
  • King Crimson's 1969 incarnation would play an improvised interpretation of "Mars, the Bringer of War" as the encore of their live set, with guitar, bass, and drums playing the 5/4 time ostinato, while Ian McDonald would improvise over the rhythmic pulse on the mellotron. The same piece appears on their 1970 album In the Wake of Poseidon as "The Devil's Triangle", so named for the three sections of the song, gradually becoming more and more improvised and avant-garde.
  • The intro to the song "Eyes of the World" by British hard rock band Rainbow is based on "Mars, the Bringer of War". Band's drummer Cozy Powell subsequently based his solo, while touring with Emerson, Lake & Powell and Black Sabbath, on the same piece.
  • The intro to the song "Am I Evil" by British heavy metal band Diamond Head is also based on "Mars, the Bringer of War".
  • The chorus of the east coast thrash band Overkill's "Who Tends the Fire" (Megaforce 82045-2, 1989) is based on the Mars theme.
  • The intro and some interior sections of American death metal band Nile's "Ramses Bringer of War" (Relapse 6983, 1998) are based on Holst's Mars.
  • "The Divine Wings of Tragedy" by progressive metal band Symphony X (SPV 72833, 1999) includes a refrain of Mars material that holds the extended composition together.
  • "War (Mars, The Bringer of War)" by Van Helsing's Curse (Koch 9524, 2003) is simply a reproduction of Mars with a voice-over.
  • Italian power metal band Domine does a song called "Mars, The Bringer of War" (Dragonheart, 1999) which uses significant Mars material.
  • A synthesized version of "Mars, The Bringer of War" appears on a self-titled album by Emerson, Lake & Powell album.
  • The bridge of "Boom!" by hard rock band System of a Down (Sony 87062, 2002) is based on Mars.
  • The intro to "White Room" by Cream (Polydor 827578, 1968) is essentially a reworking of Mars theme material.
  • British pop artist Sands included some Mars material in the outro to "Listen to the Sky" (Rev-Ola 176, 2007) on a compilation of the same name.
  • Rick Wakeman recorded an abridged version of the entire suite called Beyond The Planets (telstar uk, 1985) with a four-piece rock band.
  • Mars was rendered in techno stylings on the album TechnoClassix: Never Mind Beethoven (Berwick Street 1, 1993); the track is called "Mars (the bringer of techno)".
  • Masque features parts of the Suite—of particular note is the first track "Joybringer (From Jupiter)", which is "Jupiter" with lyrics.
  • Part of "Jupiter" is used by Swedish black metal artist Bathory in the song "Hammerheart" of the "Twilight of the Gods" album.
  • Simon Wright uses parts of Jupiter when playing his drum solo on the Holy Diver DVD.
  • British heavy metal band Iron Maiden used excerpts from "Mars" as the intro music on their 2006 A Matter Of Life And Death World Tour.




  • "The Definitive CDs" (CD 94), of Holst: The Planets (with Elgar: Enigma Variations), Norman Lebrecht, La Scena Musicale, September 1, 2004, webpage: Scena-Notes-100-CDs
  • "Symphony hits new heights with 'Planets'" (review), Peter Bergquist (professor emeritus at University of Oregon School of Music), Register Guard, 2005-10-21, webpage: MNouvelle-Planets
  • "HOLST Suite: The Planets" (history), Len Mullenger, Olton Recorded Music Society, January 2000, webpage: MusicWebUK-Holst
  • Astrology and Modernism in "The Planets", Raymond Head, Tempo (Boosey & Hawkes, London, now Cambridge University Press) No 187 December 1993.

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