Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Holst 4: Out of This World

Gustav Holst could be described as a 'one hit wonder' (if In the Bleak Mid-winter is conveniently forgotten!), though he certainly wasn't a 'one work wonder' - as my posts so far have hopefully proved beyond all reasonable doubt! The Planets is one of the best-known and best-loved of all pieces of British classical music. It has been a huge hit right from the time of its première towards the end of the First World War; indeed, Holst was nonplussed when he returned to Britain at the end of the war to find just how wildly popular it was. Its popularity has never waned. Audiences love it, critics love it, composers love it, even Imogen Holst loved some of it. I've loved it since my student days, many moons ago. I used to put a tape of it on while writing essays and when it had finished I would re-wind it and listen to it again. I reckon I must have listened to it at least a hundred times then. (I even wrote a poem about it. I won't embarrass myself - and you - by printing it here though.) And I still love it. Such popularity has its down sides. To Holst's regret (to put it mildly) - and mine - The Planets has overshadowed everything else he wrote. People seem to want The Planets and nothing else. They are, of course, missing out on so much. This series of posts is my very small contribution to helping rectify this sorry state of affairs.

That said, The Planets is about to get a post all to itself!

First though, something a bit different. Please give a listen to this complete performance of The Planets as you may never have heard it before. A version for piano duet was the original version of the piece (though Neptune was originally written for organ). Only afterwards did Holst orchestrate it into the form we know so well today. He then re-wrote it for two pianos. Now The Planets, I suspect you will agree, sounds remarkable enough on two pianos. The orchestration just makes it extra-extraordinary. I think that the benefit of hearing the two piano version is that you can hear more clearly that new influences had entered Holst's music with The Planets. He had become acquainted with the great early ballets of Stravinsky - especially Petrushka and The Rite of Spring and had heard some of the pioneering orchestral scores of Schoenberg, principally the Five Pieces for Orchestra. Those influences are commonplace references in discussion about The Planets. The piano version, however, makes it very clear (at least to me) that Holst had been keeping up to date with the music of Debussy and Ravel. If you know your Debussy and Ravel piano pieces, please listen to the delicate piano versions of Venus and Neptune and I hope you will hear their similarities to certain of the harmonies and textures of the Holst. The remarkable scoring of the familiar orchestral version somewhat masks those French Impressionist influences. I would perhaps suggest an awareness of Scriabin too, as a listen to Saturn on the piano seems to reveal. And what about Dukas and his Sorcerer's Apprentice for an influence on Uranus, the Magician? (I'd say that's the safest bet of all!) None of these influences, all thoroughly digested and transformed, takes away from the fact that The Planets is a remarkably original score, growing naturally out of the pieces we met in the last post and out of Holst's own profoundly inventive one-off imagination.

The suite The Planets had its origins in Holst's mysticism. He was keen on astrology, so the seven planets of The Planets aren't our rocky and gassy neighbours in the solar system (nor the gods and goddess of Ancient Rome) so much as what they psychically represent, a series of 'moods'. It's about horoscopes, not telescopes. It is by sheer good luck then that the music of The Planets fits so perfectly with our post-Voyager image of the real, physical planets of our solar system. Looking at film of the ethereal blue gas clouds of the giant Neptune whilst listening to the ethereal music of Holst's Neptune is an unbeatable match between sound and image. The beauty of the cloud-face of Venus (from an outsider's perspective only!) seems to fit to perfection the beauty of Holst's Venus. And so on. For that reason, I will preface each description of the seven movements of The Planets with a photograph of the appropriate planet.

Mars follows on from those wild dances in The Cloud Messenger, from the inhuman march of A Dirge for Two Veterans, from the 5/4 time rhythms of the Rig Veda hymns. It is sometimes presented as being a terrifying prophecy of the hellishness of the First World War, with its tanks and trenches. I heard a BBC Radio 3 talk about it fairly recently that pushed this line. Given that Mars was written in 1914 not 1917, this is pure hindsight - which doesn't stop it sounding as if it should be true. The clash of merciless rhythms, the glinting (tank) armour-like brass and percussion, the fierce dissonances, the hollow fanfares, those furious final chords, all sound as if they are painting a bleak vision of the violence of war. Part of the extraordinarily inhuman sound of the opening of the movement arises from the use of col legno - the technique of hitting the strings of bowed stringed instruments with the stick (back) of the bow rather than drawing the hair of the bow across the strings. (Chopin and Berlioz were the pioneers of col legno writing, and - as we know - Holst learned much about orchestration from Berlioz.) Mars has reverberated down the decades, finding itself being reflected in film score after film score. Everything from Star Wars to Star Trek and back again seems to boldly know Holst's Mars. Poor Hans Zimmer was apparently sued over allegations that he plagiarized it for the battle scenes of Gladiator, even though Zimmer's music is in 3/4 time and has a tune all of its own.

Venus provides the opposite vision to Mars. This is music of tenderness, beauty, at times sweetness. The calming horn calls, the soft tolling of delicately-coloured chords, the caresses of harps, the tinkling  of a celesta, harmonies built from sevenths moving in euphonious contrary motion to each other, the sudden warmth of strings rising through the texture, the lyrical song of the solo violin beginning the gently treading rapture of the middle section, the serene yet mysterious close - all cast a ravishing spell. As you will hopefully be aware from earlier posts, the style of Venus had been foreshadowed in many Holst pieces leading up to The Planets.  

Mercury is one of the two scherzos of the suite - and an extraordinary feat of composition. The virtuosity of the scoring is easy to hear but the ingenuity of the play of contrasting tempi (6/8 versus 3/4 - in other words 2 beats against 3 v 3 beats against 2) is just as important to this most light-footed of movements. Such a play of different tempi was not new to Holst's music, as all who know the Jig from the St. Paul's Suite will agree. The movement also moves at lightning speed through two keys simultaneously - a use of bitonality that was prophetic of the polytonality of some of the composer's late pieces. Here the effect is to conjure up the spirit of changeability. 'Quicksilver' - that old name for the element mercury - is just the word to capture the nature of Holst's Mercury. (Not by coincidence, of course). It's as if Mendelssohn's 'fairy scherzos' have been reborn for a new age.

Jupiter remains the most popular movement from The Planets. The reasons for this are not hard to find.  There's its joviality for starters, and at its heart is a tune that is known to huge numbers of people, many of whom have never even heard of Holst - a tune that was turned (not by Holst himself though) into a patriotic song, "I vow to thee, my country." Yes, we may have heard it too often but it remains a great tune nonetheless. Some critics worry that it sounds completely out of place, coming out of nowhere - or at least out of some other work altogether - and is a populist cuckoo in the nest. I say 'Pah!' to that! Anyhow, it takes its place among a number of other memorable tunes. These tunes are the ones where, unusually for The Planets, the influence of folksong makes its presence felt. The movement is not all about catchy tunes, it's also about the way those tunes are built up - principally by means of the old Glinka method of variation by 'changing the background' (including the scoring) rather than the theme itself. The way Jupiter spins into being, driven by Holst's trademark ostinatos, is perfect for showing film footage of the real planet Jupiter spinning and it makes for an impressive and aptly magisterial start. The scoring throughout add to the spirit of exuberance, with six timpani being employed!

Saturn was Holst's own favourite movement from the suite (the suite he came to hate for its excessive popularity.) It is a stunning movement. Grim chords of ninths alternate like the slowed-down ticking of a clock, doleful melodic phrases pass above them, until a new ostinato enters and an austere funereal march begins. The march swells and ebbs away. The grim chords alternate again to a steady, dirge-like tread as the movement moves inexorably towards its huge climax where bells toll furiously, terrifyingly. The music then dies away, mournfully, to the sound of passing bells - until the closing bars bring in a sense of resignation and closure. It's my favourite movement too.

Uranus is the second scherzo of the suite. Half light-hearted, half sinister it is a Sorcerer's Apprentice with a mean streak. I don't doubt for a second that the grotesquery and vulgarity of parts of this exhilarating movement were exactly what Holst wanted. The wild folksong-like theme is quite something, as is the fiercely capricious dance/march that erupts midway. The four-note figure announced so forcefully at the start is the key to the movement's thematic workings. It crops up, in various guises, again and again. 

Neptune is one of the most ethereal, mysterious and magical stretches of music ever composed - bringing "air from another planet", as Schoenberg might have said - and the cool radiance that flows in with the entrance of the wordless female double chorus is a wonderful coup. So is the remarkable slow fade-out at the end. This is said to be the first example in history. The ladies were, according to Holst, "to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed", while the last bar (after the orchestra falls silent) is "repeated until the sound is lost in the distance". We know all about fade-out endings nowadays, but this first fade-out remains a remarkable thing to hear for the first time. You listen and listen until you can no longer be sure if the voices are still sounding or whether they have stopped. As in Mercury and Mars, bitonality - the simultaneous play of two keys - plays a key part in creating the overall strangeness of sound, here to otherworldly effect. As in Mars, 5/4 time is used throughout  but again to completely different effect, here creating a feeling of deep stillness. Harps and celesta add to the intangible sound of the movement. Above all, the music is quiet, very quiet. 


As a coda (or a footnote), the British contemporary composer Colin Matthews (composer of the masterly Hidden Variables and Fourth Sonata) wrote an extra movement, premièred in 2000, which was to grow out of that magical final fade-out into infinity. He spotted the opportunity to add the planet (other than Earth) which Holst missed from the suite (it was only being discovered in 1930). Pluto, the Renewer was its title. It hasn't really caught on (despite several recordings) - and Colin's case wasn't helped when Pluto was (rightly) officially this piece, the composer wrote:

Pluto, the Renewer - I chose the only appropriate astrological attribute I could find - follows on without a break, before Neptune has quite faded away. There could hardly be music slower or more remote than Neptune, and I chose to make Pluto faster even than Mercury, thinking of solar winds, and perhaps the sudden appearance of comets from even more outlying reaches of the solar system. And, as if Holst’s music was still present in the background, all suddenly fades away to reveal the final chord of Neptune sustained in the distance.

It was a neat idea but the spell of Holst's fade-out really shouldn't be broken very often. That fade-out is as vital to the integrity of the piece as any of Stravinsky's perfectly-formed final chords. Moreover, regardless of any questions about the quality of CM's Pluto, his expressionist style feels just too far removed from that of Gustav Holst for the piece not to feel like an interloper from another solar system, despite the obvious care he took to ensure that audible connections (both motific and in terms of scoring) are made to the other Planets. On it's own terms I think it's a fascinating piece, with beautifully-scored quiet sections that recall the most delicate pages of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra and violent outbursts that recall their fiercest pages. I can't resist, however, quoting one of the rare YouTube insults that doesn't make you despair of humanity. Even though I don't share its underlying sentiments, it's a good joke:

I think the whole declassification of Pluto as a Planet was just an excuse to not have to play this piece...

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