Listening Guide – ‘Mars’ from The Planets


‘Mars: The Bringer of War’ is the first movement of The Planets Suite by Gustav Holst. You can read all about The Planets in our Listening Guide.

‘Mars: The Bringer of War’

‘Mars’ starts with a repeated rhythm played by the strings – listen for the unusual tapping sound from them.  For this opening, Holst asks all the string players (probably 50 or more) to play with the wooden part of the bow, not with the horsehair. This effect is called ‘col legno’ which is Italian for ‘with the wood’.  It’s a really distinctive, quite creepy sound. You can hear more about the violin from Kate on our OrchMap.

The rhythm is relentless, starting very quietly and getting louder and louder, like an army marching ever closer. Over the rhythm a melody gradually rises, initially played in the low brass and woodwind, but eventually the whole orchestra plays it.

There’s a climax but the pounding rhythms keep going afterwards. You’ll then hear fanfares calling back and forth between some of the brass instruments, including a euphonium, an instrument that looks a bit like a tuba, which can most commonly be found in brass bands. A trombonist in the orchestra will switch to playing the euphonium for The Planets. Some of you may have met Dave, one of the LPO trombonists, in an OrchLab workshop, and if the LPO were performing The Planets, it would be his job to play the euphonium in it. You can see Dave playing his trombone on the OrchMap.

After another climax, where the strings suddenly play very fast indeed, there is a quieter middle section, but it is still tense and foreboding.  The strings and woodwind instruments slide around a strange melody, punctuated by side drum and trumpets playing quiet snatches of the pounding rhythm from earlier.

The section builds up, leading to the whole orchestra playing the repeated rhythm again, very loudly.  The whole opening section is repeated, but with a different ending.  Here there are massive repeated chords for everyone together, marked ffff– meaning as loud as possible!

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This resource was written by John Webb