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It’s probably an oft-made point, but it’s worth making again: Holst’s 1914 work, The Planets, is not about the planets.
That is, it’s not about astronomy. Rather, it’s about astrology. So we are not hearing a suite of tributes to, say, Saturn, the planet with rings around it. Instead, Holst was writing about 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; and Neptune, the mystic.
Holst had managed to finish his much-pondered suite – it had been in his mind for some time – by 1916, by which time the First World War made all thoughts of a performance impractical. However, in the war’s closing days, and in between his own personal war efforts, he was granted the use of the great Queen’s Hall in London, as a gift from a friend. He immediately commandeered the twenty-nine-year-old Adrian Boult to conduct his new suite.
A great deal of Holst’s personality is captured in The Planets, with the extrovert in Jupiter, his sense of humour in Uranus, and his relaxed manner in the lyrical second movement of the work, Venus. Venus was the second of the seven to be composed and has an unmistakable air of calm contrasts with the first movement, which is very loud and thunderous. Listen for the French Horn call at the start which is answered by soft flutes, and the use of the harp – an instrument often associated with femininity, beauty and peace.
Oh, and if you play it over the opening of Star Wars, it works bizarrely well: