Friday, June 1, 2018

The Cosmic Vision of Holst: The Planets 100 Years Later

Inevitably, certain works in the classical music canon fall into heavy rotation, often to the detriment of lesser-known (but equally powerful) pieces. One piece that is a perennial favorite is Gustav’s Holst’s 1916 suite, The Planets, which is often given the dubious distinction of being a “pops” piece. It is been recorded numerous times by most of the great conductors and orchestras, and many people assume that it has said all it needs to say by now, just over 100 years after its first performance. So I often think myself, until I hear it with fresh ears, or even better, catch a live performance. A few months ago I saw it again in concert (my third time, I believe) and though I was looking forward to it, I wasn’t desperate to hear it again, as much as I adore the piece.

Perhaps that’s the best way to go into a concert—expecting as little as possible. From the opening tread of Mars I was intrigued, forgetting how exciting it is to hear the rhythmic backdrop being tapped away on the violins’ strings before it explodes from the full orchestra. Movement after movement gave me fresh insights—the runs of double harps accenting the otherworldly beauty in Venus, or the cavorting of bassoons in Uranus. It’s a piece that really needs to be seen live to get the sense of how well Holst manipulates the orchestra, echoing themes in different sections, and then massing incredible towers of sound in the most interesting combinations. And who can forget the astonishing entrance of the off-stage chorus in Neptune which swims through the orchestra fabric, only to be the last ‘man’ standing as the piece fades into oblivion?

Hearing it again made me think about why this piece is such an astonishing achievement and how much subsequent music—including anything about space or written for celluloid—owes to its inspiration. Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Planets is how doggedly Holst refused to follow it up with a sequel. Holst was quite an eccentric composer, hopping from Eastern mysticism to English folksong without batting an eye. While he was capable of writing crowd pleasers such as the St. Paul’s Suite and the ballet music from The Perfect Fool, he usually preferred writing mysterious, craggy works such as Edgon Heath or The First Choral Symphony (there wasn’t a second).

Yet hearing The Planets alone, you would think he was the most tuneful, extrovert composer on the planet (heh), rivaling Rimsky-Korsakov for orchestral color and Dvorak for the sheer number of tunes. Had he written a single movement alone—say, Jupiter—he would have been world famous; yet he wrote seven magnificent movements, each one a masterpiece of mood and music. The piece is uniquely balanced between orchestral fireworks and actual depth: despite its reputation as a pops staple, this is not empty music in the vein of, say, the 1812 Overture. Holst slid in some deeply personal thoughts as well as a bit of prophecy: Neptune is more than a leave-taking of the suite; it also seems to predict the future of 20th century music.

While many dismiss The Planets’ importance, you merely have to look at 20th century music far and wide to hear it all around you. While Holst had his own influences, Richard Strauss and Elgar among them, he transformed the whole into something neither composer could have dreamed up. For all of Strauss’ sheer opulence,  he always seems a bit tongue-in-cheek, as if he’s mocking the very beauties he catalogues. And Elgar, for all his nobility, can occasionally seem a bit too noble, too convinced of his own rhetoric. Holst exhibits something of Keats’ “negative capability,” in that he offers some of his own compositional thumbprints, while also seeming invisible throughout.
Each movement has its own sensibility and ethos. Mars is very different than Jupiter, and none of them are at all like Neptune. There is a lot of connecting thread, mind you, and the orchestration itself seems to be the ‘frame’ that unites the whole. And yet, Holst never winks at you, as if to say, “isn’t this clever,” or “here I’m writing a scherzo ala Dukas.” The music simply seems to be, as if it has always existed, spinning in space and awaiting the first bold explorers from our humble planet. More than anything, I feel I am visiting a unique, self-contained world in each movement, with its own culture and laws, some more or less recognizably human until the last. Only at the end do we get our first glimpse at the “beyond,” a world where humanity falls away like a dried-up husk to reveal something frightening in its boldness, yet liberating in its ice-cold beauty.

The suite opens with Mars, Bringer of War, and it’s possibly the most famous—and most plagiarized—movement. The brutal rhythmic tread tapped away on strings, and soon shouted by the entire orchestra, belies the cleverness of the main theme, which is almost heroic and noble—a mechanized Elgar, perhaps. The piece reminds me of the WWI propaganda that sent so many idealistic young men to their doom, and the music, too, seems to ring hollow as the piece progresses. The nobility is ground away by the sheer violence of the sentiment, even though it’s extremely exciting and the listener gets carried away in the sentiment. Yet passionate outbursts attest that those fighting  in the war believe in their role, and that even if glory is in vain, some people will die in the pursuit. More than any other piece, this movement sounds prophetic of Shostakovich’s ‘war symphonies,’ particularly the great grinding opening movement of his Seventh, though that theme is far more banal than Holst’s. The genius of Holst is that his themes are truly believable—they don’t sound like parody, but rather, something beauty and noble pressed into unholy service. So when the battle explodes to life, you realize what brought them to this pass—and why no one can hope to survive it. This is not only the death of young men, but the death of ideals, the destruction of an entire world. Fitting, in that WWI was raging at the time and that the 20th century would never be the same again.

Naturally, this is followed by Venus, Bringer of Peace, which is tonally and thematically different in every possible way. The opulent, Straussian orchestration gives way to a chamber-like delicacy, opening horns and flutes, and then harp, strings, and celesta. This could be a sentimental cliche in the hands of a lesser composer; Holst makes it sound like a fever dream experienced by a shell-shocked survivor of war. The opening theme is ethereal and the very epitome of peace (as the title suggests). A second theme emerges on solo violin, a Romantic theme but played at a distance—almost like a memory of love than the feeling itself. The strings join in this theme, which reaches a restrained climax, then fades back into the warm, glowing calmness. More than anything, this movement seems to suggest the idea of love in tranquility, happy memories that can never be experienced again, perhaps at the moment of death. The pulsing winds behind this second theme give a hint of darkness—again, like beauty and peace that can only be experienced fleetingly, a happy ending that is essentially bittersweet. Yet the violin, oboe, and cello solos try earnestly to create a mood of rapture, even as they are swept aside by the general feeling of benediction. When the second theme is played toward the end by muted strings, it seems even more desolate. Like Saturn to come, there is something of old-age and passions spent in this piece, even if it still remembers what loves feels like.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger is the dark horse of the suite, and perhaps the most ingenuous movement. Essentially a quicksilver scherzo, it begins with a motif that flitters all across the orchestra, before reaching a quirky theme that is again passed around by the orchestra and interrupted by chimes. A violin introduces a new theme, more plaintive in tone, which is also passed around as if late for a pressing appointment. However, it reaches a grand climax by the entire orchestra—the destination reached?—before fading back into the racing motif of the beginning. The orchestration is jaw-dropping and requires the utmost virtuosity, and for this reason, really makes a splash in concert. You can hear a bit of Debussy and Ravel in this piece, as well as Dukas, whose The Sorcerer’s Apprentice may have inspired it. More than anything, this jolly, wistful piece reminds me of the colors and shapes of kaleidoscope, tumbling and falling over and over again.

Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity, is the true ‘core’ of the suite, as well as the most famous single movement. The grand opening predicts big things, and Holst doesn’t disappoint. More than anything, this movement seems to be narrating a story: the festivities for a grand ceremony of the gods, with the music ushering in this and that deity’s arrival. The grand theme on cellos and horns does indeed seem like a procession, followed by ‘scurrying’ music reminiscent of Mercury (perhaps some of the gods are late)? Then the big, strutting theme emerges, perhaps Jupiter/Zeus himself arriving on the arm of Hera? It all sounds like grand Hollywood ‘sword and sandals’ music, which is appropriate, since they shamelessly pilfered Holst’s musical language (along with Liszt, Strauss, and a few others). As the ceremony falls away, something miraculous happens: the arrival of a second great theme, a “hymn” of arresting beauty and nobility. Someone even grander than Jupiter himself has arrived. Holst would later write words to this tune, called “The Land of Hope and Glory,” since it is quite a show-stopper. In this context, it seems that even the gods are stopped in their tracks by something greater than themselves. I like to think they are gazing on the works of man, which are quickly outstripping them and moving them to tears of admiration—and envy. But the gods have a short attention span: scurrying music soon intervenes, and the grand entrance of the very beginning repeats. The gods are immortal! Or are tonight, at any rate. So let the feasting and drinking resume!

A much more human note is sounded by the following movement, Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age. As stated before, it seems to have a mood/tone in common with Venus, a certain world-weariness and sense of coming to a fatal conclusion. But Saturn is much darker from the outset, and offers little in the way of romantic excursions. It opens like a question, a mere pulse (like the ticking of a clock) to set the stage for a cosmic confrontation. The first motif is full of yearning and passion—more passionate than anything we’ve heard so far. Finally a theme emerges, sounding like a grand theme (similar to Jupiter’s) but with passion spent and played too slow. We expect it to gather steam and become triumphant and jolly, and indeed, it does seem to acquire a sense of major key optimism—for a moment. Then it reaches a climax only to fall away to a few distant drums and a restatement of the theme, in a more spectral garb. It suddenly sounds like a funeral march. A new theme emerges, full of tragedy and danger. It begins to rise, the drums growing in size and alarm; the brass pound out the theme, until bells intrude—danger! destruction! death!  The funeral procession seems to topple off a cliff, falling to ruin below. Death seems to sweep the board clean of players, and the orchestra returns to a brooding accompaniment of chimes and slowed-down clocks. Yet at the moment of greatest despair, the music takes an upward turn, harps taking over the ‘ticking’ accompaniment in a more hopeful manner. Horns pick up snatches of the theme making it sound like a hymn, as a distant church bell seems to signal a rekindling of hopes—or an ascension of spirit. Though subdued, the music assumes an almost ecstatic character, reaching a state of transcendence beyond the world of hopes and dreams. At the very end, flutes imagine the afterworld, suggesting the peace of Venus without the illusion of romance. It’s the calmest and most hopeful moment in the entire suite.

Uranus, The Magician is meant to startle after this moment of bliss. The opening motif is aggressive and menacing. A dance-like theme kicks up its heels in a cackle of spirits. Holst creates an atmosphere of savage enchantment with music that skitters like Mercury, but quickly assumes depths that the “messenger” can never imagine. A heavy, rollicking theme takes over, becoming increasingly violent—like a spell that has escaped the magician’s control. The use of percussion is masterly, drums and glockenspiel suggesting shadowy spirits marching across the walls. An especially chilling moment is when the low brass plays the rollicking theme, while the flutes play a marching variation—as if two imaginary armies are drawing battles lines in the magician’s study. This grows into the most savage climax since Mars­—a truly barbaric clash of percussion and brass, as the entire laboratory is torn asunder. Vials explode, windows shatter—and then, an explosion punctuated by an organ. Perhaps the sorcerer has finally banished the spell. But no...harps continue to pluck away at the theme, suggesting a few embers yet remain. Then the brass comes back for one more savage volley before a final, and resounding, silence (but not before the opening notes are played once more on the harp).

Neptune, as stated earlier, is the great beyond. It opens with a wandering, mystical flute theme appropriate for its subtitle, “The Mystic.” It seems suspended in time, without anything human as a point of departure. The theme avoids any hint of Romantic melody, a quality emphasized by the violins which trace a spectral accompaniment behind the slow, spare wind music. Celesta chimes seem to evoke the distant, twinkling stars of a hundred thousand years ago, light that has traversed the darkness of space to reach us at last. It’s beautiful and calm, until the brass intones some starkly unsettling undertones like a warning. After all, it’s always dangerous to leave home, and who knows exactly what lies beyond. Either way, we won’t return the same way—or in the same form. When the chorus enters (off-stage, in a live performance) it’s like the sirens call of adventure, yet far less sensuous than Debussy’s Sirens from a decade before The Planets. It wafts in like a passing cloud, and the music behind almost hints at a romantic melody; we are lost in wonder at a hidden truth we never imagined and long to hold in our grasp. The chorus carries us away, the music from the orchestra fading, until even sound becomes lost in silence.