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“Doc Talk”/Class Lesson 5/19/2020




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Monday’s Lesson:  Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and Movement 1: “Mars, the Bringer of War”


Today’s Lesson:  Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”:

  1. Venus, the Bringer of Peace

III.  Mercury, the Winged Messenger


Yesterday we began our exploration of “The Planets,” the 7-movement orchestral suite written by Gustav Holst between 1914-16.  I started the “Doc Talk” by referencing what Aaron Copland wrote about the nature of program music:


“One principle must be kept firmly in mind:  No matter how programmatic or descriptive music may be, it must always exist in terms of music alone.  Never allow a composer to justify his piece to you because of the story content.  In short, story interest can never take the place of musical interest; nor can it be made an excuse for musical procedure.  The music must be able to stand on its own feet, so that a person hearing it with no knowledge of the story would not have his enjoyment curtailed in any way.”


As we study “The Planets,” I will continually reference the musical integrity of this piece.  In other words, even if this work was not an attempt to musically depict the astrological meaning of each the 7 planets depicted, it would still be a masterpiece of music composition.


  1. Mars, the Bringer of War

Review:  Use of 5/4, ostinato, pedal tones, cool space chords, and “sonata form” (exposition contains 3 distinct themes and the brief development is really a bridge that serves as one long crescendo to the recap).


  1. Venus, the Bringer of Peace

We travel inward, toward the sun, to the planet that is our closest neighbor, Venus.  This is the easiest planet to see as it often appears just after sunset as the “evening star” or just before dawn as the “morning star.”  It is exceptionally bright—and even in a telescope appears as a simple “white disc”—hence its association with peace and beauty.  [However, don’t be fooled.  We’ve learned that beneath its benign exterior, its surface is hell—an intensely hot, rocky mountainous landscape with a sulfuric acid atmosphere.  Totally uninhabitable!]


Note the contrast in the title from the first movement:  from “the bringer of war” to “the bringer of peace.”  The contrast continues in its chamber-like orchestration—very thin, very transparent.  Holst introduces the celesta, a keyboard instrument invented in France in the 19th century that sounds like bells.  [The word means “heavenly.”]  He also uses the glockenspiel (orchestral bells) and makes extensive use of the 2 harps.


Music cue #1:  7:17-8:26 in attached link

Note the solo horn and it’s rising 4-note motif, answered by the heavenly sounds of upper woodwinds (flutes/oboes) playing primarily a descending scalar motif.


The 4-note ascending motif is sounded in the cellos and basses and sets up a gentle pulse is generated in the flutes and harps that may suggest the twinkling of stars.  There is a slight dissonance in these pulsing chords that add a “twinkle.”  Note how calm and serene this music is.


Music cue #2: 9:00-10:00 in attached link

“B section” – note the change of key, time signature (3/4) and orchestration.  Also note the new theme presented by the solo violin containing many 4ths.  [Remember the solo violin in “Scheherazade?”]  Also, a pedal/ostinato is established in the oboes and English horn and eventually taken over by the horns.  The ostinato is a chain of syncopation on the up-beat.  This rhythm keeps the momentum of this slow movement moving forward.


Music cue #3: 10:40-11:30 in attached link

At the end of this “B section,” Holst adds a beautiful “sighing” episode with a lovely rising and falling motif.  Time almost feels as though it stands still…however, the chain of syncopation is still present as an accompaniment.


The remainder of this movement essentially repeats the material in these 3 examples.  The overall form of the work is A-B-A-B-A.  Again, the work can stand on its own!  It has a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end.


III.  Mercury, the Winged Messenger

Mercury is the planet closest to the sun, which makes it difficult to spot due to the glare of the sun.  If the horizon is clear and the planet is in the right position, you can sometimes find it right after sunset—with the unaided eye, however, binoculars or a telescope is better.  It’s relatively tiny—just a speck.  The actual planet is just a “hot rock” with no atmosphere—much like our moon.   Because it is so close to the sun, the speed of its orbit is much faster than the earth, hence it is always associated with speed!


Music cue #4:  15:10-16:05 in attached link

“A Section:” Note the time signature:  fast 6/8, so fast that it is often better to take the movement in 1.  Also, note what we call the “cross-rhythms”– measures exist that are really in  2/4 and some that are in ¾.  (However, the 6/8 indication is always present.)  Also note that Holst uses multiple key signatures in the score as the key changes so quickly!


Music cue #5:  16:05-17:00 in attached link

In the “B Section” of this movement, a 6-measure theme is repeated 12 times with different accompaniment.  It is like a “chaconne” or “passacaglia” and one of Holst’s favorite compositional devices.  Note the ¾ and 6/8 quality of this theme and note that the accompaniment is often in 2/4.


Music cue #6:  18:00-18:49 in attached link

Near the end of this movement, as a coda, Holst combines the “A & B Sections”—another compositional device that he enjoys.  Note the ostinato in the timpani as well!  Again, this movement can stand on its own as the coda acts as a “summary” of themes addressed in this movement.



1) Listen to the two movements that we discussed in this “Doc Talk/Lesson” without interruption.

2) Listen to “Venus” and “Mercury” with the score.


More movements tomorrow?

Dr. Jerry Markoch, Director of Bands

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