Monday, June 23, 2008

Gustav Holst: The Planets

Gustav Holst's The Planets is an orchestral suite that sprang from Holst's personal interest in astrology. It consists of seven surprisingly varied movements, each one named after one of the planets (excluding, uh, Earth and Pluto).

Each movement illustrates that planet's astrological character, and thus the movements have names like Mars, the Bringer of War and Venus the Bringer of Peace. And of course who could forget Uranus, the Magician. (I dare you to say that last one out loud!)
James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Holst (1874-1934)
The Planets
Deutsche Grammophon, 1990

Where is Earth and Pluto, you might ask? Well, you're standing on Earth, so it doesn't really play a role in astrology. And Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930, long after this work was completed.

Of the seven movements, listeners will undoubtedly find Mars, Venus and Mercury compelling listening. But everyone's favorite (myself included) is Jupiter. It might be the most infectious classical music work of the entire 20th century.

A handful of listener notes:
1) Ah, the Chicago Symphony. In Mars, you can really hear my favorite brass section in the whole world really let it rip. Back when I used to play, I actually pulled a stomach muscle one time playing Mars in a rehearsal.

2) Hard to believe a wimpy and forgettable guy like Holst could write something as gripping and threatening as Mars, and then turn around and write something as tranquil and beautiful as Venus, and then compose something as joyous as Jupiter.

3) Listen at about the 1:35 mark in the Jupiter movement for what is probably the most recognizable passage in this entire seven-movement work. When those french horns introduce the main theme, backed up by the lower strings, it never fails to give me goosebumps. And when the strings (in unison with the french horns) come in at about the 2:55 mark with the secondary theme it's goosebumps again. It's famous passages like these that make this one of the most popular works of the 20th century.

4) This is just one man's opinion, but were the woodwinds having an off day when this symphony was recorded? They sound muddy playing many of their runs, they're not playing in unison all that well, and the clarinets sound shrill. The muddiness was most obvious (to me at least) in Jupiter. They have some tough parts here, I'll grant that.

5) You have to listen really closely to hear this but, in this Chicago Symphony recording, at about the 4:42 mark in Jupiter (right when the english horn comes in for a three or four bar solo), you can hear somebody's chair creaking in the left speaker. I'd give anything to be able to not notice these things.

6) Because Jupiter and Mars always seem to get a disproportionate amount of the attention from listeners, I encourage you to pay some extra attention to some of the less-commonly known movements. Uranus (I can't help but laugh every time I write that) is a surprisingly fun and rollicking movement, Saturn is gripping and driving, and Neptune (with its creepy women's choir accompaniment) is ghoulish and eerie. Every one of these movements has something truly interesting to offer.

1 comment:

Laura Perrin said...

Goosebumps for sure. This was an excellent post! Thanks for bringing me back to some of my favorite music as a youth.

Keep up the great writing!