Director’s News

“Doc Talk”/Class Lesson 5/21/2020




1) Registration for Marching Band is OPEN on our website!!!

Please sign up ASAP, and spread the word, especially to rising 9th graders!  The due date is Friday, June 19th.


2) Applications for Section Leaders/Captains and Drum Majors has been emailed to all the families and will be posted on our website.  Deadline for submission of the written application, along with videos for drum major candidates, is next Friday, May 29th!



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

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

  1. Venus, the Bringer of Peace

III.  Mercury, the Winged Messenger

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

  1. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  2. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age

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

  1. Uranus, the Magician

VII.  Neptune, the Mystic

“Pluto, the Renewer” composed by Colin Matthews


To review: “The Planets” is a 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

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.


  1. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

The middle movement—the centerpiece–of this 7-movement suite is in a “sonata-like form” with 3 themes in the exposition and a beautiful chorale in the place of the development.  We discussed the fact that all of themes are built on the three-note motif which comprises the ostinato at the beginning of the movement:  a minor 3rd and a whole step, or pitch class (0-3-5).


  1. Saturn:  The Bringer of Old Age

This may be the most under-rated movement in the entire suite!

This work is in 4 sections, the first three organically build to a very powerful climax, as if the elderly person is staring down death.  The last section, a coda, brings the movement peacefully to a close as if one accepts their old age.


  1. Uranus, the Magician

Uranus is a very large, blue-ish colored planet that is visible with the unaided eye only in the best viewing conditions AND you need to know where to look.  Even with a small telescope or binoculars, you would need to know where to look because it will just appear as a rather small star (no twinkle).  It was discovered in the late 1700’s because it was the star that seemed to move among the stars around it by a steady observer.


Flybys by the planet by the space probes Voyager have revealed some interesting things about this planet:  1) it rotates around a horizontal axis; and 2) it actually has rings—but they are very faint.


The title…magician?  Magic…  Trickery…hmmm….  Is there a trick in this work that Holst is using?


Music cue #1:  35:32-35:51 in attached link

A 4-note disjunct motif is sounded in octaves by the trumpets and trombones, an octave lower by the euphoniums and tubas, and then by the timpani-transposed…followed by a grand pause.  This tells you how important these 4 notes will be.  Note the tritone interval between the 2nd and 3rd note (Eb-A) which gives it a bit of a dissonant sound.  Also note that the intervals between the notes gradually widen:  M3-TT-m7th.  Here’s the magic—these 4 notes do not “give away” or suggest any key whatsoever!  They will recur throughout this movement in various guises, but most often you cannot miss them.  They kind of remind you that any sense of “key” is only an illusion.


Music cue #2:  35:51-36:53 in attached link

A lolloping bassoon rhythm is sounded (3 bassoons in triadic harmony) which is taken up by several other instruments.  This is very reminiscent of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas written in 1896—20 years before “The Planets!”  (Sorcerer = Magician!  In fact, the entire movement was perhaps inspired by Dukas’ work!)  Several “rhythmic tricks” are played including the illusion of 2/4 time (the work is in a fast 6/8 feel) and a ¾ time (remember Mercury?).  The 4-note motif returns sounded at different tempi (another trick).


Music cue #3:  36:53-37:55 in attached link

Everything that we have been listening to up to this point in the movement serves as a long introduction to this—the first of 2 marches.  Note the conjunct (stepwise) motion of this theme and that there is a suggestion of a whole tone scale sound (another trick to disguise tonality).  This section ends with several statements of the original 4-note motif.


Music cue #4:  38:00-39:28 in attached link

After a short bridge based on the 4-note motif, the 2nd march is sounded over a lolloping rhythm in the timpani and bass instruments.  This march is also conjunct in nature.  After a short bridge, it explodes in sound to a FFF!


Music cue #5:  39:28-40:58 in attached link

A brief coda concludes the work in which the 4-note motif is first heard very softly in the harp, and then there is one last shout of this motif by the entire orchestra, after it fades back into an echo sounded by the harp.  Holst then creates an explosion of sound with the notes of the 4-note motif played simultaneously (harmonically) over an E-B pedal.  The very last notes sounded are E-B (a fifth) with E as the bass note.  Perhaps the root of the “tonality” of the work was E all along (after all, B is the dominant of E).  Holst finally gives away the solution!


VII.  Neptune, the Mystic

You would need a telescope to see Neptune, as well as the knowledge of where to look.  It was discovered as a result of inconsistencies in the orbit of Uranus—something was pulling on this planet from afar.  Astronomers looked for the source of this pull for quite a while and finally discovered this very distant planet.  Like Uranus, Neptune is very large and blueish in color.  However, its axis is more vertical like the other planets.  At the time that Holst wrote this work, Neptune was the farthest known planet from Earth in our solar system.


So, how does one musically depict a planet so far away from us—on the literal edge of our known solar system?


If you look at “The Planets” as a whole, you would think that you would want to end with a “big movement” like “Mars” or “Jupiter.”  However, Holst takes an enormous risk and ends this suite with a very quiet, haunting, beautiful movement that just evaporates into thin air.  In the coda of the movement, he introduces something very special—a chorus of female voices in 6 parts is placed off-stage in an adjoining room.  There is no indication specifying how the pitches are to be vocalized…most sing the notes on an “ah” vowel.  In the last bar of the piece, the door connecting the room to the stage is slowly and silently closed.


Music cue #6:  41:22-42:08 in attached link

Note the 5/4-time signature—just like “Mars” (from the first movement)!

Immediately one gets the sense of an ostinato of 2 minor chords just rocking back and forth.  This oscillation is an important motif of this movement.  The sonorities are beautiful—distant sounding.  In fact, in the score Holst indicates that the orchestra is to play pp throughout the entire movement!


Music cue #7:  43:10-43:58 in attached link

In Pt 2 of this movement, you will note that the 2 chords are each held longer, giving the impression of even more space.  In other words, Holst is slowing the “harmonic rhythm” (the pace at which the chords change).  You’ll also note the use of the celeste playing rapid arpeggios giving the effect of thousands of twinkling stars.


Music cue #8:  45:15-49:19 in attached link

Let’s fast forward to the coda where the chorus enters.

Once again, the 2 chords used at the very beginning are still in place.  The chorus enters on a sustained “G” and then begins singing small groupings of ascending scale patterns in imitation.

At the very conclusion of the work, the chorus just sings two chords back and forth as the door between their room and the stage is closed, giving the impression of drifting off into eternity.


It is a conclusion unlike any piece that I am aware of in “classical music.”  And the audience LOVED IT!  Who says you need to end with a bang?



In 2000, a British composer by the name of Colin Matthews was commissioned to write a movement for Pluto.  What a daunting request!  If you continue to listen to the attached link, you will hear “Pluto-the Renewer.”

(49:19-end) in attached link


I’ve listened to this movement several times and what I’ve discovered is that it sounds like a sort of a “summary” of the many musical ideas that have been presented in this work… a kind of a “look-back,” and perhaps a “look forward.”  I believe that the artistic motivation behind this work is the suggestion that Pluto is not only seeing our solar system, but solar systems revolving around other distant stars.  “The Renewer” suggests that our feelings may be universal—shared by others in distant galaxies…  J


You’ll hear ostinato, disjunct motifs like the one used in “Uranus,” fast figures like those used in “Mercury,” rising scale patterns like “Venus,” anger and very loud passages like “Mars” (plus much of the movement is in 5/4).  You’ll also hear/see some novel orchestral sounds like raised bells in the horns and woodwinds, and glissandi in the strings and harps.


Really very cool—but not quite Holst…but I don’t think he would be too upset at the attemptJ



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

2) Listen to these works with the score.

3) Listen to “Pluto—the Renewer” at the end of the first link.  What do you think?


Take care!

Dr. Jerry Markoch, Director of Bands

Follow Athens Drive Band

Support The Band

Earn money for your band account and for the band.

We Need You!

We can't do this without your help.  Sign Up To Volunteer.

Support The Band

Earn money for your band account and for the band.

We Need You!

We can't do this without your help.  Sign Up To Volunteer.

Nothing from Fri, 21 June 2024 to Sat, 22 June 2024.