As well as being a musical classic, Holst’s Planet Suite contains profound insights into the astrological characters of the planets of our Solar System.
Holst’s Planet Suite has become one of the most popular pieces of western classical music depicting the astrological character of the seven main planets of our solar system.
Gustav Holst who was born in Cheltenham, England from mixed Swedish, Latvian, German and English ancestry had a wide range of spiritual interests in addition to his fondness for English folksong. The titles of some of his pieces will give you an idea of this range: ‘The Hymn of Jesus’ for chorus and orchestra; four groups of ‘Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda’, my favourite being the third for female chorus and harps; and ‘Savitri’, an exquisite early opera based on a Hindu legend.
In addition to his interest in Indian religion, Holst was an amateur astrologer, who used to cast the charts of his friends. And anyone with any feeling for astrology who listens to these pieces will recognise that he knew his stuff.
By the way, the sequence of the planets does not follow the astronomical order. It has been suggested that the order of the pieces follows the distance of each planet from Earth, Mars being the closest, then Venus, then Mercury then Jupiter and the outer planets. But whatever the reason, musically it’s completely satisfying. We start with Mars.
MARS: The Bringer of War
I have to say that war is only one aspect of Mars. Only when the energy is out of balance does it get violent. From an astrological point of view, Mars is related to physical energy, action and decision. Competitive but not necessarily warlike. Also, the symbol for Mars is used as the symbol for the male sex and in many societies, men are expected to be energetic, active and competitive. But please bear in mind that all women have this planet in their charts. How it is expressed is another matter.
Having said that, Holst’s sound picture of the red planet starts with menacing growls of brass over a driving but lop-sided 5/4 rhythm. It’s interesting that he didn’t choose a march rhythm. That would have been too obvious and also maybe too militaristic and gung-ho. The glorification of war wasn’t Holst’s intention.
Some astrologers are of the opinion that Holst’s devastating sound picture of the red planet was influenced by the time he was writing during the build-up to the first world war. Others feel that the energy he was picturing was a composite of Mars and that of the soon to be discovered Pluto.
VENUS: The Bringer of Peace
After the shattering climax of Mars, some balm is needed and Holst provides us with a delicately shaded picture of Venus. The tonality is soft and the mood is gentle. Venus is beautifully characterised as the planet of peace and beauty. Lyrical violin solos, caressing woodwinds, a tinkling celesta but the harmonies he uses have an ethereal quality. Venus is indeed considered to be the planet of beauty but there is another side to Venus that Holst does not explore or maybe was not aware of. The core astrological meaning of the planet Venus is ‘what I hold dear’. It then follows that it is the planet of love, of what has value, either emotionally, culturally and also financially. By extension what is valuable for me is what I am prepared to defend. Venus is about peace but not peace at any price.
MERCURY: The Winged Messenger
Holst’s delightful celestial cameo portrays Mercury, the planet of communication as the winged messenger. Light and fast, brilliantly coloured, this sound picture frolics playfully along however ignoring the deeper meanings of Mercury.
For example in Greek mythology, Mercury is the psychopomp, the one who guides souls from this world to the afterlife, and by extension the one who guides us between different states of consciousness, between sleep and waking, between the conscious and the unconscious or in the shamanic sense, between the worlds. Also related to Mercury is the ancient Egyptian god, Thoth, the scribe, the creator of magical alphabets and writing systems and thereby education and learning. But I find Holst’s picture entirely satisfying and I wouldn’t want anything else.
JUPITER: The Bringer of Jollity
In this piece which has become the big hit out of all the pieces in this suite, Holst captures the various facets of the astrological meaning of Jupiter. Not only the joy but also the nobility, the bustle of city life, the galumphing of a peasant dance as well as religious aspirations with the hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’, this is the big tune, swelling with pride. Everything in this piece is rising, expanding, aiming towards the heights, towards freedom and victory. Heady stuff and no wonder it’s so popular. But as anyone who has had a major Jupiter transit will tell you, sometimes we get so used to our limitations that to grow become a challenge. Remember that the first return of Jupiter to its natal position takes place at the age of 11 or 12, marking the beginning of puberty. Not at all easy.
SATURN: The Bringer of Old Age
As you would expect, this is the most profound of the pieces in the suite. It plods along in a regular ostinato rhythm. Striving, struggling, as if the hill were getting steeper, the burden heavier, the journey more challenging at every step. And at the climactic moment, there is the clamour of a chiming clock, reminding us how we are bound to time. But Holst doesn’t leave us there, and nor does Saturn. It is by accepting the obligations and restrictions of life that we are free, and in that freedom is a serenity. And that’s how the piece finishes.
By the way, if you check out Holst’s birth chart (16:24, 21st September 1874 in Cheltenham England) you’ll see Saturn on the Ascendant in Aquarius. Saturn is a planet that Holst knew very well.
URANUS: The Magician
Holst’s Uranus is full of surprises. Starting with a raucous fanfare, interrupted by drums it then turns into a madcap dance broken by thunderbolts from the drums with crazy cross-rhythms, sudden accelerations and changes of key. It reaches a climax, you think it’s finished – there’s silence – distant murmurings of celesta and strings and then the fanfare returns for a final blast, disappears and we’re left with the gentle tinkle of the celesta.
Yes, that’s Uranus – sudden changes of gear, shifts of reality. Uranus operating outside the grammar of linear time, outside of past, present and future, as if time had holes and shortcuts, echoes and pre-echoes that for Uranus are quite logical but for us seem magical and often disruptive. Until you give up trying to understand and just roll with it.
NEPTUNE: The Mystic
After the craziness of Uranus, Neptune’s peace allows the listener to drift into the boundless universe. There’s a melody that floats over a shimmering background, never resolving till the piece fades out into silence with a wordless female chorus. Perfect for Neptune, for whom there are no boundaries, only mystical oneness.
Er… but what about Pluto?
The Planets were written in 1914-16 and premiered in 1920. Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930. In 2000 composer Colin Matthews wrote a piece called ‘Pluto: the Renewer’ to follow on from Neptune. Then in 2006, Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet (as if Pluto could give a damn). And frankly, I much prefer the suite without the new addition.