Beyond the Planets
December 2, 2013 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
There are certain composers we associate with one important work. Pachelbel, for example, is known for his Canon in D. He wrote other things, of course, but they are overshadowed by the Canon. There are many such “One Hit Wonder” composers in music history, and it’s sometimes a little bit of a puzzle figuring out why a single piece of music—out of an entire career—becomes wildly popular. A composer might just capture the spirit of a time or the imagination of a group of people. Or the piece might take on a certain function that spreads its popularity, like a nationalistic song that becomes part of political celebrations. A composer might not live to see that one piece gain popularity, but if it happens while the composer is alive, he or she might come to resent being typecast by a single piece of music. Or he might simply be surprised by it.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934), a British composer, is of course best known for his orchestral suite, The Planets. He was almost forty years old when he began working on it. There is a movement for each of the non-Earth planets that were known at the time: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. (There are some interesting ideas as to why the first planets aren’t in order.) The Planets was inspired by discussions of astrology Holst had with his friend Clifford Bax. With this piece, Holst was on the verge of something new and exciting, but in order to understand what a breakthrough Holst had with The Planets, we need to know a bit more about him.
Holst came from a musical family of composers and teachers. His father, Adolphus was a piano and organ teacher, and he married a woman named Clara Lediard, who was one of his students. Gustav was their first child. He took piano lessons from an early age, but he suffered from a nerve inflammation (neuritis) in his right arm, which would have precluded a serious career in piano performance. Gustav preferred composition anyway, and he eventually attended the Royal College of Music, even though it took him two years to get a scholarship.
Young Holst was an ardent fan of Wagner’s operas, and much of his early work imitates Wagner’s style of writing. In 1895, Holst met Ralph Vaughn Williams, who was a fellow student at the time, and the two of them became fast friends. Holst was required to have a second major at school, and he chose trombone. It was a good choice because after he finished school, he made a decent living playing trombone in orchestras and small groups. It was certainly more lucrative than his nascent composition career. But Holst was determined to concentrate on composition and teaching, and gave up the trombone entirely. At first, money was tight for Holst and his new wife, but teaching appointments arrived, and Holst’s income was at least steady after that.
Holst was an influential teacher because he encouraged students to write and perform their own music, rather than just studying and analyzing pieces that were already written. His students often wrote rounds and sang them together, emphasizing creativity and camaraderie. He was especially patient with beginning students, and his spirit inspired many new students to compose and play. Teaching was time consuming, however, and he was only able to compose on weekends and summers. It took him two years to complete The Planets.
Although his neuritis and poor eyesight kept him out of active duty in World War I, Holst organized concerts and musical activities in the Middle East as part of the YMCA’s army education program. When he returned to England in 1919, an incomplete version of The Planets had already premiered, and it was an immediate popular success. Holst, however, was not much interested in being a popular composer; he just wanted to keep composing and developing his art. His success as a composer ironically pulled him further away from his passion. Publishers were asking Holst to revise his early scores for publication; he was appointed to the staff of the Royal College of Music and University College, in Reading (adding substantially to his teaching load); and he was called upon to conduct more public concerts. It might have grown even busier if not for an accident that happened in 1923. While teaching at University College, Holst slipped and fell and suffered a concussion. He seemed fine at first, but then he began to suffer from insomnia and headaches. Holst’s doctor recommended he take a year off and live in the countryside. He did just that, using that year to compose and do little else.
Upon his return to London in 1925, he found that he was no longer “popular,” and that the works he had created during his convalescence left most of his audience cold. Holst didn’t seem to mind at all; he was confident in his creations, and knew his best years lay ahead. He was still teaching a little bit, but he had plenty of time to compose, and even had time to travel, hike, and read. He continued to encourage young artists, making it a priority to attend concerts of new music.
The New Grove Dictionary says this about Holst: “Directness of expression was Holst’s chief characteristic, in his life and in his music.” He had an early love of folksongs, and he was particularly influenced by Indian religion and philosophy, although he had not heard actual Indian music. He set translations of hymns from the Rig Veda, and wrote a chamber opera called Savitri, based on a story from the Mahabharata. He composed three other operas as well, but they are not often performed. Holst was also a composer of choral works, probably because he always had students who could perform them. Among his best-known works in this arena are The Hymn of Jesus (1917), the First Choral Symphony (1923-4), and A Choral Fantasia (1930).
Holst was a great lover of counterpoint, and he explored this in orchestral works like The Fugal Concerto of 1923. Post-The Planets, Holst undertook a large-scale orchestral piece called Egdon Heath, which was written as an homage to the English novelist, Thomas Hardy. It was this piece that Holst considered his finest work. The Lyric Movement, composed for viola and small orchestra, was left unfinished at his death, but it is a beautiful Scherzo. The warmth of the viola and its sinuous lines are exquisite, and it’s a shame this piece isn’t more often performed.
The Planets, which was completed in 1916, was a breakthrough for Holst. It is an undisputed masterpiece of rhythm, expression, and color, and its immediate accessibility is apparent even today. But his development didn’t stop there. Although one might be hard pressed to find a live performance of Holst’s other works, most of his major orchestral works, his choral pieces, and three of his four operas have been recorded. Perhaps the world is now ready for post-ThePlanets Holst.