Holst the Planets

Holst the Planets
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  MAY 2016 | 37 “E very artist ought to pray that he may not be ‘a success,’ ” remarked Gustav Holstto a friend. “If he’s a failure he stands a goodchance of concentrating upon the best work of which he’s capable.” Holst spoke with some au-thority on the matter, since he knew both sidesof the equation intimately. A leading figure of what is today viewed as the “Second EnglishRenaissance” in music, he was catapulted tocelebrity through the double-whammy triumphof his symphonic cycle The Planets (1914–16) andhis oratorio The Hymn of Jesus (1917). Success didnot lie easily on his shoulders. Following the rap-turous reception of the oratorio, he wrote to an-other friend, “Woe to you when all men speakwell of you”; and before long, he retreated intothe solitude he found requisite to his profession.Holst had been born into a musical family of Scandinavian, German, and Russian roots. Thesurname he inherited from his father, “vonHolst,” alluded to a background of slight nobil-ity in Sweden; he would drop the “von” and an-glicize his given name of Gustavus at the onset of World War I, shaking off any presumption of what many assumed was a German lineage.Holst studied piano as a child, but neuritis in hisright arm prevented him from pursuing a pro-fessional career. He entered the Royal College of Music in 1893, where he studied compositionwith the eminent Charles Villiers Stanford, al-though without achieving much distinction. Healso studied trombone at the conservatory — agood thing, since it provided a skill with whichhe could earn a living playing in brass bandsand opera orchestras. The most important occurrences of his con-servatory years, it seems, were the friendship heforged with fellow student Ralph VaughanWilliams (who would be his closest lifetime col-league) and his directing of the HammersmithSocialist Choir. This group met at KelmscottManor, the home of William Morris, a progressivethinker who apparently introduced Holst toHindu literature and philosophy, which wouldgreatly inspire his musical compositions. Holst taught at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Ham-mersmith, from 1905 until the end of his life.Teaching exhausted him, such that he became aweekend composer. He spent World War I withthe YMCA educational programs among Britishtroops in Greece and Turkey. At the same time,the orchestral work was germinating that wouldthrust him to stardom. The Planets, a set of  The Planets Gustav HolstIN SHORT Born: September 21, 1874, in Cheltenham, England Died: May 25, 1934, in London Work composed: Mars, Venus  , and Jupiter  in1914; Saturn, Uranus  , and Neptune  in 1915; Mercury  in 1916 World premiere: September 29, 1918, for aprivate audience at The Queen’s Hall, London, byNew Queen’s Hall Orchestra, Adrian Boult, con-ductor; first public performance, omitting Venus  and Neptune  , November 22, 1919, with thecomposer conducting at The Queen’s Hall; firstpublic performance of the complete work, November 15, 1920, at The Queen’s Hall, by theLondon Symphony Orchestra, Albert Coates,conductor New York Philharmonic premiere: December 29, 1921, with Albert Coates conducting the New York Symphony (a NewYork Philharmonic forebear) Most recent New York Philharmonic performance: July 7, 2013, Bramwell Tovey,conductor Estimated duration: ca. 49 minutes  38| NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC seven self-contained orchestral “mood pic-tures” portraying Earth’s neighbors in the solarsystem, has remained ultra-popular for almost acentury. Following the work’s premiere, in 1918,Holst’s popularity became his nemesis. He wascalled upon to conduct performances of hisworks; social engagements and press interviewsate into his precious composition time. Pub-lishers, suspecting that his earlier pieces mightsuddenly prove marketable, kept him busy cor-recting proofs and revising works he had longsince put out of his mind. Holst collapsed — literally. In February 1923he fell from the podium while conducting at theUniversity of Reading and suffered a concus-sion. He recovered fully and traveled thatspring to lecture at the University of Michigan,but shortly after returning to England he can-celled all his professional engagements anddisappeared for a year to lead what he called“the life of a real composer.” In 1925 he re-turned to London, simplified his life, and rev-eled in the fact that audiences were finding hisnew pieces too cerebral to be popular. He tookgreat satisfaction from the works he composedand continued to earn the respect of fellowcomposers and intellectuals. By 1932 his healthbegan to fail; a brief stint lecturing at Harvardwas marred by complications from a duodenalulcer and he died two years later, followingcomplications from surgery that was intendedto alleviate his condition. Instrumentation: four flutes (two doubling pic-colo and one also doubling alto flute), three oboes(one doubling bass oboe) and English horn, threeclarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons andcontrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, threetrombones and tenor tuba, tuba, timpani, bassdrum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-bourine, xylophone, orchestra bells, chimes, ce-leste, two harps, organ, strings, and, in  Neptune ,an offstage chorus of female voices. In the Composer’s Words Holst offered somewhat mysterious comments inconnection with the premiere of The Planets  :These pieces were suggested by the astrologicalsignificance of the planets. There is no programmusic in them, neither have they any connectionwith the deities of classical mythology bearing thesame names. If any guide to the music is required,the subtitle of each piece will be found sufficient,especially if it used in a broad sense. For instance, Jupiter  brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and alsothe more ceremonial kind of rejoicing associatedwith religious or national festivities. Saturn  bringsnot only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfill-ment. Mercury  is the symbol of mind. What About Pluto? It’s easy to imagine why Holst left Earth out of the lineup for The Planets — too much information to compress into a sin-gle “mood picture.” But what about Pluto? There’s an easyexplanation: Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930, and by thattime Holst was not inclined to devote what little health andstrength he could muster to expanding a work he had grownto resent, so much did it overshadow the rest of his oeuvre. Still, Pluto’s absence became unsettling for later audi-ences, and a solution was proposed by the British composerColin Matthews, who serves as administrator of the HolstFoundation and who from 1972 to 1984 had worked closelywith Imogen Holst on editions of her famous father’s music.In 2000 Matthews composed Pluto: The Renewer, as a use-ful “appendix” to Holst’s evergreen suite. It was performednot infrequently as an add-on to Holst’s suite until 2006,when astronomers downgraded Pluto’s status to that of adwarf planet, which left Matthews’s addition in limbo. Pluto
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