Listening Guide – Holst’s The Planets


Gustav Holst: The Planets Suite 

Gustav Holst
Gustav Holst

English composer Gustav Holst (1874–1934) wrote one of the most famous and popular orchestral pieces ever – The Planets Suite. It has been performed by professional orchestras all over the world since Holst finished it in 1916. It has hugely influenced music written for film by modern day composers. For instance, John Williams’s music for the film franchise Star Wars sometimes sounds very much like The Planets. Huge numbers of orchestras have recorded The Planets, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Parts of it are very famous indeed, such as the hymn tune I vow to thee my country which comes from the fourth movement, ‘Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity’. The whole work is full of different musical characters, drama, beauty, anger, mystery – and audiences love to hear it live.

But Holst, who was a very shy man, wasn’t very pleased with the success. He said:

“It is the greatest thing to be a failure. If nobody likes your work, you have to go on just for the sake of the work.  And you’re in no danger of letting the public make you repeat yourself.  Every artist ought to pray that he may not be ‘a success’.”

He found that, having written such a successful and popular piece, everyone wanted him to compose the same sort of music again. But he didn’t want to – instead he wanted to explore different sorts of sounds and musical ideas. He never wrote for such a big orchestra again, and none of his later pieces has ever been as popular as The Planets. But he didn’t seem to mind.

Brighton Palace Pier
Brighton Palace Pier in the 1900s. © Brighton Museum Archive, Brighton

Holst wasn’t interested in being famous or successful – he simply enjoyed composing and making music. He trained as a trombonist as well as a composer, and as a student used to travel to Brighton to play in the band on the pier. For a large part of his life he was also a teacher – teaching at St Paul’s Girls School, but also working with adult amateur musicians at Morley College in London. In fact, he was so busy as a teacher that he had to write The Planets during the school holidays!

The Planets Suite (composed between 1914-1916)

Holst’s starting point for The Planets isn’t scientific – he’s not writing a musical description of what each planet is like in reality. Instead, Holst takes his starting point from the gods of Ancient Greece and Rome – some of which were represented by one of the planets. There are seven movements in the piece, in this order:

Mars: The Bringer of War
Venus: The Bringer of Peace
Mercury: The Winged Messenger
Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity
Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age
Uranus: The Magician
Neptune: The Mystic

The order of the pieces represents a journey from the earthly to the spiritual. The first four pieces are about earthly things: war, peace, communication and joy. The last four are based in the spiritual realm of magic and mysticism. The piece in between – Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age – is the journey between the two. It starts off slow, tired and quiet.  Then, it builds up to a tremendously loud middle section full of tolling bells, after which the music becomes serenely beautiful featuring harps and flutes – like the music of heaven!

Other pieces you might like by Gustav Holst

St Paul’s Suite for String Orchestra
Four short folk music inspired pieces of different characters written for the students he taught at his school.

Beni Mora
Holst suffered from neuritis and asthma and was advised to take a holiday.  He went to Algeria, and there was captivated by the folk music he heard.  This piece was inspired by that trip.

Explore more:

This resource was written by John Webb