Holst: The Planets, with Professor Brian Cox

The centenary of The Planets by Gustav Holst was on the 29th of September 2018, and on that day there was a performance of it by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Professor Brian Cox presented some of the scienctific discoveries that have been made about each planet before each movement. While they were performed, images of the planets were shown on a large screen behind the orchestra. It was broadcast on BBC 2 on the 1st of June 2019 to coincide with Professor Brian Cox’s TV documentary series, also called The Planets.

The premiere of Gustav Holst’s The Planets was on the 29th of September 1918. It predates the discovery of Pluto, which was in 1930, and that now Pluto isn’t considered a
planet anymore, the fact that there isn’t a piece for it is no longer an issue! (Earth doesn’t get one either, but that’s because we’re on Earth, so it’s from Earth’s point of view by default!).

Holst was asked to write one for Pluto, but he decided not to, apparently wanting his works other than The Planets to get more recognition. You do get those cases with
popstars as well, who slightly resent their biggest hit for overshadowing all their other songs.

But The Planets has been consistently popular for its 100 years, (nearly 101 years now!) which is something to be praised! It has had an influence too, with composers for science fiction television and movies taking inspiration from it, for example John Williams for the Star Wars films.

In some ways, the music doesn’t match easily with what we know of the planets now. Not much was known about the planets when Holst was composing. But this isn’t just to do with science marching on. As was pointed out in the programme, Holst’s inspirations were “astrological rather than astronomical”. It was based more on the mythology of the deities the planets are named after, and even then more about how the movement of the planets were believed to affect people.

The Planets was written around the time the First World War was happening, and it starts with ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’, as Mars was the Roman God of War. As such, the music sounds very fearsome and ominous, but Brian Cox suggested it should nowadays be interpreted in a more optimistic way, as Mars is the only planet in the solar system other than Earth that has conditions anywhere close to being able to support life, and with the environmental damage we have already done and continue to do to Earth, Mars may one day be the only hope of the human race surviving. The images of Mars showed that it has some similarities to Earth, having ice and mountains. The music also made it look very majestic.

‘Venus, The Bringer of Peace’ was named due to Venus being the Roman Goddess of Love and Beauty, and also as a contrast with Mars. However, now the music is a contrast with
the planet Venus itself! Before probes were sent there, Venus was speculated as being a “tropical paradise”, but in fact it’s more like Hell – extremely hot, covered in volcanoes and raining sulphuric acid! The sweet sounding music of ‘Venus, the Bringer of Peace’ might not fit that easily, but it did somewhat fit with the images of the planet, as it does still look very beautiful.

The music of ‘Mercury, The Winged Messenger’ is quite cheery, which may be due to Mercury flying around as the Winged Messenger of the Roman Gods. The smallest planet
in the solar system, and the closest to the Sun, Mercury has extremes. During the day, the temperature is very hot due to its closeness to the Sun, but the fact that it has no atmosphere means that it’s incredibly cold at night.

‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’ is named after Jupiter, the king of the Roman Gods, and Jupiter’s sheer gargantuan size is likely why it was named after the chief Roman God in the first place. Brian Cox described Jupiter as a “creator and destroyer of worlds”, as its gravitational pull influenced most things which happened in the solar system. It may even have been responsible for the asteroid which hit Earth killing the dinosaurs! Brian Cox also said that Jupiter was something which made the human race come to terms with the fact that Earth isn’t the centre of the universe. Earth may be the most special planet in the solar system due to the abundance of life, but when you look outside of Earth and to outer space, Jupiter is a much bigger deal! It even has its own mini solar system, including the moon Europa, which seems to have a frozen ocean, and if there is anywhere else in the solar system that has life, it will probably be on Europa. The music for Jupiter was suitable, as it sounded powerful and grand.

The idea behind the music for ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’ was of a sombre decline followed by a serene acceptance. The Roman God it is named after was Saturn, a deity of various things, including Agriculture and Time. But for the planet itself, its famous ring system is actually quite young compared to most of the solar system – the rings probably weren’t around Saturn when the dinosaurs were on Earth. Brian Cox also pointed out that, if anything, Saturn is very vibrant and energetic, with its moons including the gigantic Titan (which has methane rain, snow and rivers!) and Enceladus, which has geysers of ice!

The music for ‘Uranus, the Magician’, named after the Greek God of the sky, is quite jaunty and eccentric, which is apt, as the planet is tipped on its side! It is also kind of fitting that Uranus and Neptune have similar titles in The Planets, as physically the two planets have quite a lot in common!

I think my favourite was the final movement, ‘Neptune, the Mystic’. Neptune was named after the Roman God of the Sea. It does have a bright blue appearance, but it isn’t an ocean
planet. However, it does have a lot of powerful storms! The music sounded quite magical, not least that it included an ethereal choir, and it also sounded so pretty, which fitted well with the images of Neptune, as they were some of the most gorgeous in the programme.

This programme showed a mix of science and culture, with awe-inspiring images of space and beautiful music, and was educational too with Professor Brian Cox talking about what we’ve learnt about the planets in the last century. I will hopefully blog about his The Planets series at some point as well.

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