Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is a figure of monumental importance in wind band circles. His First and Second Suites for Military Band are two of the foundational pieces of the wind band genre. But they did not make him famous in the wider world. That distinction belongs to his massive orchestral suite, The Planets. Written between 1914 and 1916 (during World War I), the suite depicts the astrological character of each planet. It leaves out both Earth, which is not in our sky and thus has no astrological significance, and Pluto, which had not been discovered at the time and has since been relegated to dwarf-planet status. The movements proceed as follows:
Mars, the Bringer of War
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Uranus, the Magician
Neptune, the Mystic
Clearly, these are not in actual planet order. There are several possible explanations for this, including that the characters of the first four movements made for a better symphony-like form in that order, or that Holst went in order of proximity to Earth, or that he went in order of their astrological significance.
The Planets was such a hit that it took Holst by surprise, and he felt that its overshadowed the rest of his music. He never again wrote a large-scale piece for orchestra.
The Columbia Wind Ensemble has played “Mars” and “Jupiter”, so the resources here will focus on those movements.
The quantity of web literature on this piece fits its blockbuster status. Below is just a sampling of what’s available. It’s all highly informative, so definitely read!
Gustavholst.info – a major web resource for information on the composer.
Program notes on The Planets from Gustavholst.info.
Article on The Planets at Suite101.com, on online writers’ community.
A video interpretation of The Planets from Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.
A blog post that compares The Planets to other pieces, including Star Wars. Also has audio excerpts of each movement. Very informative!
Another informative article at BestStuff.com.
Now some videos:
Digital simulation of the Mars Rover’s journey with Holst’s “Mars” as the backdrop (not my favorite recording, for the record):
My favorite recording of Jupiter by Charles Duthoit and the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, with montage!
Another recording of Jupiter, this one LIVE by the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra. A thrill to watch – I can’t recommend this highly enough! Linked, because they don’t allow embedding.
What planet Jupiter REALLY sounds like (or, that is, what it’s electromagnetic waves sound like when converted into sound by NASA’s Voyager):
Now, the bonus stuff: info on the planets Mars and Jupiter themselves. It sometimes amazes me to think that we live in a solar system so vast that our two next-door neighbors take months and years to reach. The countless stars we see in the sky, none of which we have any hope of reach in one human lifetime, all belong to our same galaxy. And we are just one of untold billions of galaxies out there, all so vast but so distant as to be nearly invisible from Earth. Despite our wretched smallness and insignificance in the universe, music like The Planets exists as a testament to a small measure of our greatness. And we are lucky enough to be able to experience it from the inside.
These movements were picked as 2009 Senior Choices by hornist and percussionist Jeff Petriello and hornist Margot Schloss. “Mars” was clarinetist Liz Portnoy’s pick in 2004.