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The Planets

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The Planets

Gustav Holst

The Planets, Op. 32, is a seven-movement orchestral suite by the English composer Gustav Holst, written between 1914 and 1916. Each movement of the suite is named after a planet of the Solar System and its corresponding astrological character as defined by Holst.

From its premiere to the present day, the suite has been enduringly popular, influential, widely performed and frequently recorded. The work was not heard in a complete public performance, however, until some years after it was completed. Although there were four performances between September 1918 and October 1920, they were all either private (the first performance, in London) or incomplete (two others in London and one in Birmingham). The premiere was at the Queen's Hall on 29 September 1918, conducted by Holst's friend Adrian Boult before an invited audience of about 250 people. The first complete public performance was finally given in London by Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra on 15 November 1920.


The Queen's Hall, in London, where The Planets premiered in 1918

The concept of the work is astrological[1] rather than astronomical (which is why Earth is not included): each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche, not the Roman deities. The idea of the work was suggested to Holst by Clifford Bax, who introduced him to astrology when the two were part of a small group of English artists holidaying in Majorca in the spring of 1913; Holst became quite a devotee of the subject, and would cast his friends' horoscopes for fun.[1][2] Holst also used Alan Leo's[1] book What is a Horoscope? as a springboard for his own ideas, as well as for the subtitles (i.e., "The Bringer of...") for the movements.

When composing The Planets Holst initially scored the work for piano Igor Stravinsky[3] and Arnold Schoenberg,[1] as well as such late Russian romantics as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. Its novel sonorities helped make the work an immediate success with audiences at home and abroad. Although The Planets remains Holst's most popular work, the composer himself did not count it among his best creations and later in life complained that its popularity had completely surpassed his other works. He was, however, partial to his own favourite movement, "Saturn".[4]


Just before the Armistice, Gustav Holst burst into my office: "Adrian, the YMCA are sending me to Salonika quite soon and Balfour Gardiner, bless his heart, has given me a parting present consisting of the Queen's Hall, full of the Queen's Hall Orchestra for the whole of a Sunday morning. So we're going to do The Planets, and you've got to conduct."

Adrian Boult[5]

The orchestral premiere of The Planets suite, conducted at Holst's request by Adrian Boult, was held at short notice on 29 September 1918, during the last weeks of World War I, in the Queen's Hall with the financial support of Holst's friend and fellow composer H. Balfour Gardiner. It was hastily rehearsed; the musicians of the Queen's Hall Orchestra first saw the complicated music only two hours before the performance, and the choir for "Neptune" was recruited from pupils from St Paul's Girls' School (where Holst taught). It was a comparatively intimate affair, attended by around 250 invited associates,[2][6][7] but Holst regarded it as the public premiere, inscribing Boult's copy of the score, "This copy is the property of Adrian Boult who first caused the Planets to shine in public and thereby earned the gratitude of Gustav Holst."[5]

Holst's inscription on Boult's score

A public concert was given in London under the auspices of the Royal Philharmonic Society on 27 February 1919, conducted by Boult. Five of the seven movements were played in the order Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Uranus, and Jupiter.[8][9] It was Boult's decision not to play all seven movements at this concert. He felt that when the public were being given a totally new language like that, "half an hour of it was as much as they could take in".[10] The anonymous critic in Hazell's Annual called it "an extraordinarily complex and clever suite".[11] At a Queen's Hall symphony concert on 22 November of that year, Holst conducted Venus, Mercury and Jupiter (this was the first public performance of Venus).[9][12] There was another incomplete public performance, in Birmingham, on 10 October 1920, with five movements (Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter). It is not clear whether this performance was conducted by Appleby Matthews[13] or the composer.[14]

His daughter Imogen recalled, "He hated incomplete performances of The Planets, though on several occasions he had to agree to conduct three or four movements at Queen's Hall concerts. He particularly disliked having to finish with Jupiter, to make a 'happy ending', for, as he himself said, 'in the real world the end is not happy at all'".[15]

The first complete performance of the suite at a public concert did not occur until 15 November 1920; the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) was conducted by Albert Coates. This was the first time the movement "Neptune" had been heard in a public performance, all the other movements having been given earlier public airings.[16]

The composer conducted a complete performance for the first time on 13 October 1923, with the Queen's Hall Orchestra at a Promenade Concert. Holst conducted the LSO in two recorded performances of The Planets: the first was an acoustic recording made in sessions between 1922 and 1924 (now available on Pavilion Records' Pearl label); the second was made in 1926, and utilised the then-new electrical recording process (in 2003, this was released on compact disc by IMP and later on Naxos outside the United States).[17] Because of the time constraints of the 78rpm format, the tempi are often much faster than is usually the case today.[18]


The work is scored for a large orchestra consisting of four harps and strings. In "Neptune", two three-part women's choruses (S S A) located in an adjoining room which is to be screened from the audience are added.


A concert band arrangement of Mars, from The Planets, performed by the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band

A concert band arrangement of Venus, from The Planets, performed by the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band

Mercury, from The Planets, performed by the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band

Jupiter, from The Planets, performed by the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band

A concert band arrangement of Uranus, from The Planets, performed by the United States Air Force Heritage of America Band

Problems playing these files? See .

The suite has seven movements, each named after a planet and its corresponding astrological character (see Planets in astrology):

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  6. Uranus, the Magician
  7. Neptune, the Mystic

Holst's original title, as seen on the handwritten full score, was "Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra".[20] Holst almost certainly attended an early performance of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra in 1914 (the year he wrote "Mars", "Venus" and "Jupiter"),[n 1] and owned a score of it,[22][23] the only Schoenberg score he ever owned.[20] Each movement of Holst's work was originally called only by the second part of each title (I "The Bringer of War", II "The Bringer of Peace" and so on); the present titles were added in time for the first (incomplete) public performance in September 1919, though they were never added to the original score.[22]

A typical performance of all seven movements is about fifty minutes long, though Holst's own electric recording from 1926 is just over forty-two and a half minutes.

One explanation for the suite's structure, presented by Holst scholar Raymond Head, is the ruling of astrological signs of the zodiac by the planets:[24] if the signs are listed along with their ruling planets in the traditional order starting with Mars, ignoring duplication and the luminaries (the Sun and Moon), the order of the movements corresponds. Critic David Hurwitz offers an alternative explanation for the piece's structure: that "Jupiter" is the centrepoint of the suite and that the movements on either side are in mirror images. Thus "Mars" involves motion and "Neptune" is static; "Venus" is sublime while "Uranus" is vulgar, and "Mercury" is light and scherzando while "Saturn" is heavy and plodding. This hypothesis is lent credence by the fact that the two outer movements, "Mars" and "Neptune", are both written in rather unusual quintuple meter.

A more prosaic explanation may simply be that Holst wrote the movements in the order they stand, with one exception, and that the only structural change was to place "Mercury" third. "Mars", "Venus", and "Jupiter" were from 1914, "Saturn", "Uranus", and "Neptune" from 1915, and "Mercury" from 1916.

It has been speculated that "Mars" was a response to the outbreak of World War I, but Holst denied this, saying that "Mars" was completed before war was expected, and in August 1914 he was half-way through "Venus".

Holst suffered neuritis in his right arm, which caused him to seek help from several amanuenses in scoring The Planets. This is clear from the number of different hands apparent in the full score.[22]

"Neptune" was one of the first pieces of orchestral music to have a [2]

Additions by other composers

Several attempts have been made, for a variety of reasons, to append further music to Holst's suite, though by far the most common presentation of the music in the concert hall and on record remains Holst's original seven-movement version.


Pluto was discovered in 1930, four years before Holst's death, and was hailed by astronomers as the ninth planet. Holst, however, expressed no interest in writing a movement for the new planet. He had become disillusioned by the popularity of the suite, believing that it took too much attention away from his other works.[27]

In the March 1972 final broadcast of his Young People's Concerts series, conductor Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic through a fairly straight interpretation of the suite, though Bernstein discarded the Saturn movement because he thought the theme of old age was irrelevant to a concert for children. The broadcast concluded with an improvised performance he called "Pluto, the Unpredictable." The March 26, 1972 performance may be viewed on the Kultur DVD set.

In 2000, the Hallé Orchestra commissioned the English composer Colin Matthews, an authority on Holst, to write a new eighth movement, which he called "Pluto, the Renewer". Dedicated to the late Imogen Holst, Gustav Holst's daughter, it was first performed in Manchester on 11 May 2000, with Kent Nagano conducting the Hallé Orchestra. Matthews also changed the ending of "Neptune" slightly so that movement would lead directly into "Pluto".[28]

On 24 August 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined what it means to be a "planet" within the Solar System. This definition excluded Pluto as a planet and added it as a member of the new category "dwarf planet", along with Eris and Ceres.[29]


In 2006, the Berlin Philharmonic, with Sir Simon Rattle and EMI Classics, commissioned four composers (Kaija Saariaho, Matthias Pintscher, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and Brett Dean) and recorded an additional, four-movement suite based on asteroids in the Solar System.[30][31] The four movements were:

  1. Asteroid 4179: Toutatis (Saariaho)
  2. Towards Osiris (Pintscher)
  3. Ceres (Turnage)
  4. Komarov's Fall (Dean)

The Glittering Hosts of Heaven

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra commissioned Eve de Castro-Robinson to write a companion piece inspired by Matariki, the Māori new year signalled by the rise of the Pleiades in the sky. Her 24-minute work, The Glittering Hosts of Heaven, was premiered in Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre on 14 June 2013.[32]


Adaptations of The Planets

Non-orchestral arrangements

  • Piano duet (four hands) – an engraved copy of Holst's own piano duet arrangement was found by John York.[33]
  • Two pianos (duo) – Holst had originally sketched the work for two pianos, due to a need to compensate for the neuritis in his right arm. His two friends Nora Day, and Vally Lasker had agreed to play for him the two-piano arrangement as he dictated the details of the orchestral score to them. This they wrote down themselves on the two-piano score, and used as a guide when it was time to create the full orchestral score.[34] The two-piano arrangement was published in 1949. Holst's original manuscripts for it are now in the holdings of the Royal College of Music ("Mars", "Venus", "Saturn", "Uranus", "Neptune"), Royal Academy of Music ("Mercury") and British Library ("Jupiter", "Saturn", "Uranus").[35]
  • [36][37]
  • MoogIsao Tomita adapted The Planets for a Moog and other synthesizers and electronic devices.[38] The original LP release is very rare, due to legal action from Holst's estate.[n 2] Patrick Gleeson also recorded an electronic version in 1976 called Beyond The Sun.
  • Brass band – Stephen Roberts, associate conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, transcribed the entire suite for brass band.[40]
  • Marching band – the movements "Mars", "Venus", and "Jupiter" have all been arranged for marching band by Jay Bocook.[41] Paul Murtha also arranged the chorale section of "Jupiter" for marching band.[42]
  • Concert band – there are numerous transcriptions of the whole Suite for concert band.
  • Percussion ensemble – James Ancona arranged Mercury for a percussion ensemble. It consisted of 2 glockenspiels, 2 xylophones, 2 vibraphones, 2 marimbas, 5 timpani, a small suspended cymbal, and 2 triangles.[43]
  • Drum corps – selections from The Planets were performed by The Cavaliers as part of their 1985 repertoire, and as the entirety of their 1995 feature field show.[44] A similar performance was recorded for CD by Star of Indiana as part of their Brass Theater series.
  • Rock bands:
  • Jeff Wayne and Rick Wakeman with Kevin Peek did a progressive rock version of the entire suite with added incidental music on an album called "Beyond The Planets" which also contained occasional narration by Patrick Allen.
  • An arrangement of "Mars" by progressive-rock trio Emerson, Lake & Powell appeared on their eponymous album (1985) and was played in their 1985–86 live shows.
  • King Crimson performed a rock arrangement of "Mars" live in 1969. This arrangement was issued on their second LP, In the Wake of Poseidon, although for copyright reasons it was renamed "The Devil's Triangle" and Robert Fripp claimed authorship, with Holst receiving no composer credit.
  • A third progressive-rock band, Manfred Mann's Earth Band, performed an arrangement of "Jupiter" with lyrics which they entitled "Joybringer".
  • Black Metal/Viking Metal band Bathory arranged a section of "Jupiter" as the melody of the song "Hammerheart", from the album Twilight of the Gods.
  • The rock group Sands recorded an abridged version of "Mars" that would dominate the latter half of their 1967 single "Listen to the Sky".
  • Dave Edmunds' band Love Sculpture included the Mars movement on their 1970 album "Forms and Feelings," though this was only included in the US version of the album due to Holst's family preventing worldwide release of the track.
  • Progressive rock band Yes quoted a few sections of "Jupiter" in the song "The Prophet" from their 1970 album "Time and a Word".
  • Death metal band Nile's track "Ramses Bringer of War" makes sonic and titular reference to "Mars".
  • Led Zeppelin's guitarist Jimmy Page would incorporate a loose, improvised section based on "Mars" during live improvised versions of Dazed and Confused from its first incorporation in the song in October 1969 to the song's last performance in May 1975.
  • The introduction to Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?", as well as the main riff from "Black Sabbath" and the bridge from "Children of the Grave" by Black Sabbath, are loosely based on "Mars."[45][46]
  • Slovenian martial industrial group Laibach released the album NATO, the title track of which is an electronic/industrial cover of the first movement, "Mars, the Bringer of War".
  • Japanese singer Ayaka Hirahara released a pop version of "Jupiter" in December 2003. It went to No. 2 on the Oricon charts and sold nearly a million copies, making it the third-best-selling single in the Japanese popular music market for 2004. It remained on the charts for over three years.[47]
  • Frank Zappa quoted Jupiter in his song "Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin" on his 1967 album Absolutely Free.[48]
  • Symphony X incorporated references to "The Planets" in their song "The Divine Wings of Tragedy".
  • Ken Stringfellow quoted Jupiter in his song "Any Love (Cassandra et Lune)" on his 2004 album "Soft Commands"
  • In the Japanese visual novel Little Busters!, there is a song called Jupinyā (a portmanteau of "Jupiter" and the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of a cat meowing, "nya") performed by Tomoe Tamiyasu. The song is based on "Jupiter".[49]


Holst adapted the melody of the central section of Jupiter in 1921 to fit the metre of a poem beginning "I Vow to Thee, My Country". As a hymn tune it has the title Thaxted, after the town in Essex where Holst lived for many years, and it has also been used for other hymns, such as "O God beyond all praising".[50] It is by far the best-known melody of the suite.

"I Vow to Thee, My Country" was written between 1908 and 1918 by Sir Cecil Spring Rice and became known as a response to the human cost of World War I. The hymn was first performed in 1925 and quickly became a patriotic anthem. Although Holst had no such patriotic intentions when he originally composed the music, these adaptations have encouraged others to draw upon the score in similar ways throughout the 20th Century.

Notes and references


  1. ^ Holst's appointments diary includes a note of the date of the work's second London performance in January 1914.[21]
  2. ^ The composer's daughter, Imogen Holst, worked hard to prevent the recording being distributed in the UK.[39]


  1. ^ a b c d "HOLST Suite: The Planets" (compares compositions & history), Len Mullenger, Olton Recorded Music Society, January 2000, webpage: MusicWebUK-Holst: in 1913 Holst went on holiday to Majorca with Balfour Gardiner, Arnold Bax, and his brother Clifford Bax, and who spent the entire holiday discussing astrology.
  2. ^ a b c "The Great Composers and Their Music", Vol. 50, Marshall Cavendish Ltd., London, 1985. I.H. as quoted on p1218
  3. ^ Short, p. 131
  4. ^ Boult, Sir Adrian (1967), Liner note to EMI CD 5 66934 2
  5. ^ a b Boult p. 35
  6. ^ "The Definitive CDs" (CD 94), of Holst: The Planets (with Elgar: Enigma Variations), Norman Lebrecht, La Scena Musicale, 1 September 2004, webpage: Scena-Notes-100-CDs.
  7. ^ "divine-art.comSir Adrian Boult' on '". 
  8. ^ "London Concerts", The Musical Times, April 1919, p. 179 (subscription required).
  9. ^ a b Holst, Imogen, A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst's Music. Faber, 1974
  10. ^ Kennedy, p. 68
  11. ^ Foreman, Lewis, Music in England 1885–1920, Thames Publishing, 1994
  12. ^ "London Concerts", The Musical Times, January 1920, p. 32 (subscription required)
  13. ^ Greene (1995), p. 89
  14. ^ "Music in the Provinces", The Musical Times, 1 November 1920, p. 769; and "Municipal Music in Birmingham", The Manchester Guardian, 11 October 1920, p. 6
  15. ^ Holst, Imogen, A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst's Music. Faber, 1974, at page 125
  16. ^ "London Concerts"' The Musical Times, December 1920, p. 821 (subscription required)
  17. ^ HOLST: Planets (The) (Holst) / VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 (Vaughan Williams) (1926, 1937) at
  18. ^ Sanders, Alan, "Gustav Holst Records The Planets", Gramophone, September 1976, p. 34
  19. ^ "Combined part of 3rd and 4th flute" (PDF). Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  20. ^ a b Henry Wood and SchoenbergDavid Lambourn, from The Musical Times, Vol. 128, No. 1734 (Aug., 1987), pp. 422-427
  21. ^ Short, p. 103
  22. ^ a b c Collected Facsimile Edition vol. 3, Faber 1979. Introduction by Imogen Holst
  23. ^ Full score, Bodleian Library MS. Mus.b.18/1-7
  24. ^ Head (2014): p. 7
  25. ^ Weir, William (September 14, 2014). "A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …".  
  26. ^ "The Planets" (full orchestral score): Goodwin & Tabb, Ltd., London, 1921
  27. ^ Kemp, Linsay (1996) Liner notes to Decca CD 452–303–2
  28. ^ Scott Rohan, Michael, Review, Gramophone, August 2001, p. 50
  29. ^ A. Akwagyiram (2 August 2005). "Farewell Pluto?". BBC News. Retrieved 5 March 2006. 
  30. ^ "Holst: The Planets ~ Rattle: Music". Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  31. ^ EMI Music (4 September 2006). "BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER // Holst: The Planets". Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  32. ^ "NZSO Welcomes Māori New Year with Orchestral Tour De Force –". 10 May 2013. Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  33. ^ Notes from Amazon, webpage:
  34. ^ Notes to The Planets, Arranged for Two Pianos by the Composer, J. Curwen & Sons, London.
  35. ^ Holst: Music for Two Pianos, Naxos catalogue no. 8.554369, About This Recording
  36. ^ Peter Sykes. " Holst: The Planets." HB Direct, Released 1996.
  37. ^ "Peter Sykes". Peter Sykes. Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  38. ^ Isao Tomita. " Tomita's Planets." HB Direct, Released 1976
  39. ^ Grogan, Christopher. Imogen Holst: A Life in Music. Boydell Press (2010), p. 422
  40. ^ Stephen Roberts at
  41. ^ [1]
  42. ^ [2]
  43. ^ Tapspace :: Solo & Ensemble :: Mercury (from "The Planets")
  44. ^ "Song History for The Cavaliers", Retrieved 31 March 2013
  45. ^
  46. ^ "BBC Two - Classic Albums, Black Sabbath: Paranoid". 26 October 2013. Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  47. ^ )Hirahara Ayaka平原綾香 ( at (English)
  48. ^ "Invocation & Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin | Zappa Wiki". 20 May 2011. Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  49. ^ [3]
  50. ^ "O God Beyond All Praising". Oremus. Retrieved 1 March 2009. 


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