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Monday’s Lesson: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and Movement 1: “Mars, the Bringer of War”
Tuesday’s Lesson: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”:
- Venus, the Bringer of Peace
III. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Today’s Lesson: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”:
- Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
- Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
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.
- 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).
- Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Review: The rising 4-note motif, answered by the heavenly sounds of upper woodwinds (flutes/oboes) playing primarily a descending scalar motif. The “B section” featuring a new theme presented by the solo violin. At the end of this “B section,” Holst adds a beautiful “sighing” episode with a lovely rising and falling motif.
III. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Review: The quick tempo and 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! 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.
Near the end of this movement, as a coda, Holst combines the “A & B Sections”—another compositional device that he enjoys.
- Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
The middle movement—the centerpiece–of this 7-movement suite is a musical characterization of our largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. Known for its giant red spot and the 4 moons that are visible with the unaided eye, Jupiter can often be seen in the night sky as a particular bright star (however, remember that planets don’t twinkle). With binoculars or a small telescope, one can easily see 4 of its largest moons. Galileo proved this!!
Jupiter is known as the “king of the Gods” and as such, the “king of planets.” It is only fitting that this is the longest movement of the suite and has the richest amount of melodies. The form of this movement, like “Mars,” is sonata form with 3 notable themes in the exposition and a middle section that is a beautiful chorale (and probably the most well-known melody of this entire suite).
Music Cue #1: 19:00-19:57 in attached link
A bustling cross-rhythm ostinato sets up the first half of the “A Theme”—an athletic, highly syncopated theme with a “rocket move” toward its conclusion. The ostinato is comprised of a repeated pattern of 3 notes at different pitch levels. The 3 notes have an interval relationship of a “minor 3rd” and “whole step” or (0-3-5) pitch class. Other themes in this movement have this same pitch class as their musical “DNA.” Note also that the first 3 notes of the “A Theme” are comprised of a whole step and a descending major 3rd—very close and reminiscent of the (0-3-5) motif.
This part of the theme is repeated in the lower winds and strings; note that the 2 timpani players also share the melody! (This is because each drum can only be tuned to a single pitch and you cannot change the tunings when playing such a quick melody, so you need more drums, and hence more players!
This “A Theme” climaxes in a syncopated “unison rhythm” section where the upper and lower voices move in contrary motion.
The second half of the “A Theme group” is a theme/motif introduced by the horns comprising several intervals of a 4th. This is always answered by the “unison rhythm/contrary motion” figure that we just identified.
Music Cue #2: 19:57-20:33 in attached link
“B Theme” – a folk dance in style (note the “oom-pah” accompaniment); note the (0-3-5) pitch class/motif in the first 3 notes of this theme. Note the rise and fall of its melodic shape—almost “Mozartian” in simplicity! It is sounded in most of the strings (except the basses) and all of the French horns. It is repeated by the upper woodwinds with harmonization. A brief statement of the “A Theme” then leads us directly to the “C Theme.”
Music Cue #3: 20:33-21:30 in attached link
“C Theme”: In ¾ (played in 1); note that the first 3 notes contain the (0-3-5) pitch class—just in inversion. Also note that he presents this 8-measure tune 6 times with different accompaniments (countermelodies). This is just like the compositional device he used in “Mercury!” This section climaxes with sustained chords while the brass and timpani play a syncopated rhythm reminiscent of the first half of the A Theme.
Music Cue #4: 21:50-23:40 in attached link
After a codetta which rounds out the exposition and features that (0-3-5) motif, we turn to the “crown jewel” of this movement and the entire orchestral suite—the great “Jupiter Chorale.” [As this chorale appears in the middle of this movement, and “Jupiter” is in the middle of “The Planets” suite, this chorale is really the exact “centerpiece” of the entire suite! The order of movements/musical material is not random!]
Note that the chorale clearly begins with the (0-3-5) motif. This is an example of English folk song—the type that we know from Edward Elgar (“Pomp and Circumstance”) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (“Fantasia on Greensleeves”). The tune was so instantly beloved that Holst wrote words to this chorale praising the glory of England! And that cemented the work into “stardom!” It is now used as a sort of “national anthem” for England, and even appears as wedding processionals!
The remainder of the movement brings back the 3 themes of the exposition and closes with a coda which actually has a snippet of the chorale played in very long notes (augmentation).
- Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age
This may be the most under-rated movement in the entire suite! Just like its namesake planet, this is really a spectacularly colorful and powerful movement.
Without question, Saturn is the most distinctive planet in our solar system due to its large rings—which are visible to the unaided eye in good viewing conditions. With binoculars or even a small telescope, they are brilliant. I remember that after peering at the craters on the moon, I went right for this planet as a teenager with my telescope and lo and behold, there it was! It was tiny, but it was definitely Saturn! What a thrill it was to behold!
The astrological meaning of this planet is the bringer of old age…lol! Really?
Okay, we’ll go with this…
Music cue #5: 26:44-28:25 in attached link
The piece begins with—wait for it—another ostinato, and it is syncopated, and also serves as a pedal. (Getting the picture of this guy’s compositional technique?) This ostinato is sounded in the flutes (including a bass flute in G) and the 2 harps. However, now its back and forth motion resembles the ticking of a clock…time’s clock as your life moves along. A theme is sounded in the lowest voice of the strings—the basses (like an elderly person moving very slowly along ready to face death). Note how the intervals in this bass theme are related to the first theme of “Mars.” I can assure you that this is no accident! Toward the end of this section, this bass theme is sounded in the bass oboe! (An oboe twice as long as a regular oboe with its pitches sounding an octave lower than written!)
Music cue #6: 28:25-29:08 in attached link
Part 2 of this movement begins with the trombones playing a chorale that begins with a figure very much like what we heard in the basses. And there is a new ostinato in the cellos and basses—descending scalar quarter notes that march on and on. (Like time is marching on and on.) This movement is growing organically, like a narrative, each section growing out of the preceding one. Softer chordal trombones have always been associated with religion…perhaps the elderly person is drawing on faith as his/her time of death draws near.
Music cue #7: 29:50-32:26 in attached link
Part 3 of this movement begins with yet another syncopated ostinato (chords on count 2 & 4) with a chorale-like tune sounded in the flutes. What is special about this part is that it crescendos to a climatic section sounded at a FFF dynamic! Perhaps this is the older person staring down his/her inevitable death! The interval between the roots of the chords in this section are often tritones (a very dissonant interval). The slow march of death is interrupted with clanging on-off beat chords which give the effect of ringing chimes. The first bass melody returns and peaks when it is played by the trumpets and trombones.
Music cue #8: 32:49-35:28 in attached link
The long coda of this movement is a quiet return of the opening bass theme, but now less dissonant—actually peaceful. It is as if our elderly person has come to an acceptance of their age. Like other parts of this movement, ostinato are prevalent but it’s the serene quality of the sound that attracts the listener—much like Debussy’s “La Mer.” The movement ends very peacefully at a “ppp” dynamic level.
The overall dynamic scheme of this movement is an arch, as it begins very softly, grows to an incredible climax, and then ends very softly. The work has growth and decay; it can easily stand on its own as a work of art!
1) Listen to the two movements that we discussed in this “Doc Talk/Lesson” without interruption.
2 )Listen to these works with the score.
We finish the movements tomorrow — with a surprise 😀!!!