One of the loudest pieces of music ever written, and, in parts, one of the quietest, The Planets is a very popular choice with concert-goers. Written around 1915 by the English composer, Gustav Holst, it includes a piece of music for each of the seven planets that were known at the time, excluding the Earth itself.
Holst provides astrological titles for the planets, loosely based on the characters of the Roman gods after which the planets were named. The music is intended to be descriptive of the 'moods' of each of the planets, as perceived in their mythology. The whole suite is scored for very large orchestra, with an off-stage chorus of women joining in for the last piece. A full performance lasts about 50 minutes.
Holst's music must be considered the forerunner of the 'Hollywood Space Movie' style of composing. In particular, John Williams' Star Wars music is heavily indebted to both 'Mars' and 'Uranus'.
Mars, the Bringer of War
War is represented by a ruthless march in 5/4 time, heavily orchestrated with lots of brass. The string players are instructed to strike the strings with the wood of the bow, to produce a rattling sound, while the kettle drums use hard-ended sticks. The music builds up until it reaches almost ear-splitting volume before coming to a powerful conclusion.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Peace is depicted by a serene interlude.
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
A quirky, jumping theme represents the flitting character of Mercury.
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
This piece represents Jupiter, the ruler of the gods, both in his regal and jovial aspects. A wild dance in 3/4 time is the height of the joviality while the more solemn character is depicted by a regal, hymn-like tune, which in fact was subsequently used as the melody for a hymn, 'I Vow to Thee My Country'.
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Saturn is depicted as Old Father Time, marching slowly but relentlessly on, interrupted occasionally by discordant, clashing bells.
Uranus, the Magician
Uranus is depicted here as a brash and ostentatious magician, with loud flourishes and chords from the brass.
Neptune, the Mystic
Holst's picture of Neptune does not match the traditional view of the storm-bringing god of the sea. Instead, it is more suited to the planet itself, orbiting slowly on the edge of the outer darkness. The music is quiet and mysterious. The orchestra is joined by an off-stage chorus of women singers, who sing wordlessly and very quietly. The music ends with the chorus fading into the distance, so quiet at the end that the listener is unsure whether the piece has finished.
The Planets was written before the discovery of Pluto. When Pluto was discovered and proclaimed to be the ninth planet, in 1930, it was suggested that Holst should add an extra piece to the suite. He declined, probably because he was somewhat tired of the amount of attention that The Planets received compared with his other compositions, which he thought more worthy. 70 years later, Manchester's Hallé Orchestra commissioned Colin Matthews, a leading expert on Holst's work, to write the final 'Pluto' piece. This received its debut in May 2000. Matthews' work is very similar in style to Holst's and you will hear echoes of many of the other planets in this six-minute piece.
In 2006, Pluto was officially demoted from being a planet to the new category of 'dwarf planet', removing the need for any music for it in the Planets Suite. Matthews' piece is an interesting oddity, but the 'real' Planets will forever end with that glorious fade-out at the end of 'Neptune'.