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Gustav Holst - The Planets Suite

Gustav Holst

The Planets Suite

Richard Strauss

Thus Spake Zarathustra

DG 463627

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Gustav Holst
Gustav Holst
Sometimes musical history is made as a result of the most unlikely of coincidences.

In 1913, an impoverished Gustav Holst received an anonymous gift that allowed him to travel to Spain. His travelling companion was Clifford Bax, the brother of the composer Arnold Bax. They became good friends, and Clifford introduced Holst to astrology, an interest of his.

Astrology fit right in with Holst's way of thinking. He had a lifelong interest in mysticism, even basing some of his music on Eastern metaphysical ideas.

The result of this encounter was a "series of mood pictures" begun in 1914, which became known as The Planets Suite. The seven movements each portray the astrological traits of the seven known planets at the time, in order of distance from the Earth. Pluto was discovered in 1930, well after The Planets was written, and so does not appear in Holst's work.

The Planets brought Holst fame and fortune, and today it is his best known (in fact, almost his only known) work. Holst himself hated its popularity. He thought it was least typical of his style of composition and did not want to be associated with that one work alone.

Mars, The Bringer of War
The Planets starts with a relentless march of jackboots, in its famous 5/4 time, culminating in the merciless horrors of war. It comes as a surprise to realise that it was written before WWI.
Venus, The Bringer of Peace
The calm after the thunderous storm, Venus is peaceful, languid and lovely. French horns, flutes, a harp and violin solos slide throught beautiful melodies.
Mercury, The Winged Messenger
The mythological Mercury, fleet-footed and happy, carries a message from Scheherazade. The shortest movement full of staccatos and scherzos in strings and woodwinds.
Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity
Probably the most popular movement of The Planets, with the majestic hymn-like melody in the middle. Jupiter symbolizes hedonism, generosity and good-nature.
Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age
Holst's favourite movement, and his most original. A threatening clock ticks inexorably as the baseline, revealing both the dignity and frailties of old age.
Uranus, The Magician
Flitting major and minor keys, the mood ominous and threatening, then cheeky and humerous, the story tells of an eccentric magician putting his upstart apprentice in his place.
Neptune, The Mystic
Of all the movements, this is the most other-worldly. Eerie sliding pianissimo, and the wordless womens choir makes this a hypnotic, transporting ending to the suite.
William Steinberg led the Boston Symphony Orchestra for just 4 years, from 1968 to 1972. He was soon to retire, but the Boston Symphony was at its best. This recording dates from 1970-71 and is definitely his showpiece.

Even now, every time I listen to his recording of Mars, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It is a genuinely scary rendition. Yet his Venus is tender, and Jupiter inspiring and grand. While a touch on the fast side compared to British recordings, this is the best version of The Planets I know of. Certainly the version to own.

Very generously coupled with Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), made famous by Stanley Kubrick's use of its dramatic opening in 2001, A Space Odyssey . Based on the writings of Friedrich Nietzche, it is a musical representation of a philosopher undergoing a journey through life and thought.

Two musical masterpieces, linked by metaphysics, and the wonderful performances by the Boston Symphony and William Steinberg.

Even Holst would have been proud, I think.

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Track Listing

Gustav Holst - The Planets Suite
Richard Strauss - Thus Spake Zarathustra
William Steinberg
Boston Symphony Orchestra
New England Conservatory Chorus
    Richard Strauss - Thus Spake Zarathustra
  1. Introduction
  2. Of The Backworldsmen
  3. Of The Great Longing
  4. Of Joys And Passions
  5. The Song Of The Grave
  6. Of Science And Learning
  7. The Convalescent
  8. The Dance-Song
  9. Song Of The Night Wanderer

    Gustav Holst - The Planets Suite
  10. Mars, The Bringer Of War
  11. Venus, The Bringer Of Peace
  12. Mercury, The Winged Messenger
  13. Jupiter, The Bringer Of Jollity
  14. Saturn, The Bringer Of Old Age
  15. Uranus, The Magician
  16. Neptune, The Mystic

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