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