When British composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, was recently performed as an outdoor concert in New York’s Lincoln Center the music was wedded with high-definition photographs, grainy videos and computer-generated images of the solar system. The seven movement orchestral suite was presented as: The Planets – an HD Odyssey.
It’s unlikely that many in the audience were aware that the inspirational source for Holst was not the astronomical planets themselves but their astrological symbolism. Each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche, not the Roman deities.
Titles for each of the orchestral movements reflect astrological symbolism as well. For example, Mars is the Bringer of War, Venus the Bringer of Peace and Mercury is the Winged Messenger. Gas giant Jupiter is the Bringer of Jollity, Saturn is the Bringer of Old Age, Uranus is the Magician and Neptune the Mystic.
The idea for the work was suggested to Holst by Clifford Bax, who introduced him to astrology in Majorca in the spring of 1913. The composer became quite a devotee of the subject and liked to cast his friends’ horoscopes for fun. He reportedly used Alan Leo’s book, What is a Horoscope?, as a springboard for his own ideas.
As a work in progress, The Planets was originally scored as a piano duet except for Neptune, which was scored for a single organ. Apparently, Holst believed that the sound of the piano was too percussive for a world as mysterious and distant as Neptune. However, the suite did not become enormously popular until Holst scored it for a large orchestra. According to music critics, his use of orchestration was very imaginative and colorful, showing the influence of Arnold Schoenberg and other continental composers of the day rather than his English predecessors.
Curiously, although The Planets remains Holst’s most popular work, the composer himself did not count it among his best creations and, late in life, complained that its popularity had completely surpassed his other works. He was, however, partial to his own favorite movement, Saturn – the Bringer of Old Age.
Astrologers might notice and be bemused by some of the astrological influences apparently at work here. Holst reportedly was born on September 21, 1874 at 4:24 p.m. in Cheltenham, UK. The astrological sign rising on the western horizon, his ascendant, was Aquarius. And the planet Saturn was conjoined (sitting atop) this angle of his birth chart (horoscope). The composer’s disappointment with the work and affinity for the Saturn movement might prompt astrologers to say: “How Saturnian!”
Another notable point of synchronicity is The Planets was written between 1914 and 1916 when transiting Uranus moved over Holst’s ascendant and into the first house of his horoscope. Among other things, the planet Uranus is associated with moments of heightened intuitive awareness and the first house with new beginnings.
Pluto was discovered in 1930 four years before Holst’s death and was hailed by astronomers as the ninth planet. Holst, however, expressed no interest in writing a movement for the new planet. In 2000, the Halle Orchestra commissioned the English composer Colin Matthews, an authority on Holst, to write a new eighth movement, which he called Pluto, The Renewer. Matthews dedicated the movement to Imogen Holst, Gustav Holst’s daughter.
Here’s something else astrologers may find interesting: The musical theme from The Planets’ fourth movement, Jupiter: the Bringer of Jollity, was merged with a well-known British poem. The first verse of the song was played at the Royal wedding of Charles and Diana and the second verse was sung at Diana’s funeral. Astrologers point out that Jupiter is Diana’s “ruling” planet, which means the planet, by virtue of its placement in her birth chart, was the most influential in her life.
All of Holst’s The Planets can be found on Wikipedia and many other online sites in various versions. Have a listen. The New York Times concert review can be found here.