Holst / The Planets – Blockbuster Sound

More of the music of Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Reviews and Commentaries for The Planets

This is what we here at Better Records sometimes refer to as Blockbuster Sound.

Even on the best copies, the recording does not sound very much like a live orchestra, nor is it trying to. It’s trying to be huge and powerful in your home.

It’s more in line with a Rock Demo Disc such as Crime of the Century or Dark Side of the Moon, in the sense that everything has been carefully placed in the soundfield, each with its own space and sonic qualities. It’s not the recreation of a live orchestral event — it’s the actual creation of a unique orchestral staging of its own making.

Which is ironic. HP talked about The Absolute Sound of live unamplified music as being the standard, yet somehow this recording ended up in his Top Twelve All Time Greats. Makes no sense to me, but neither do many of the records on The TAS Super Disc List. That said, our current favorite Planets is the other Planets on the TAS List, Previn’s on EMI.

If I were in charge of the TAS Super Disc List, I would not have put this record on it. Here are some others that we do not think qualify as Super Discs.

Speakers Corner and Super Analogue

Avoid both of the above mentioned Heavy Vinyl pressings. I would award a failing grade to the former; it’s unbelievably bad. I’d go with a C Minus or so for the Super Analogue. It’s not awful but it is bloated and dark like most of the records that label put out. Any good import pressing will kill it.

VTA

Accurate VTA adjustment for classical records is critical to their proper reproduction. If you do not have an arm that allows you to easily adjust its VTA, then you will just have to do it the hard way (which normally means loosening a set screw and moving the arm up and down until you get lucky with the right height).

Yes, it may be time consuming, it may even be a major pain in the ass, but there is no question in my mind that you will hear a dramatic improvement in the sound of your classical records once you have learned to precisely adjust the VTA for each and every one of them. We heard the improvement on this record, and do pretty much on all the classical LPs we play. (All records really.) VTA is not a corner you should be cutting. Its careful adjustment is critical. Of course, so are anti-skate, azimuth and tracking weight.


The Planets

This magnificent work – The Planets – remains fresh forever and can be listened to over and over without wearing out, comparable in this quality only to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Holst borrowed generously from Beethoven, Haydn, Wagner, Debussy, Liszt, Bruckner, Elgar, Sibelius and Rossini, merging these influences with consummate skill to create a sense of grandeur and universality. This is one of the earliest and most successful works to treat a large orchestra as a collection of small ensembles, with percussion, the harp, and certain repeated rhythmic figures unifying the movements into the perception of a whole. Holst has captured perfectly the fascination of astrology with its grand vision of heavenly phenomena on the hugest scale mirrored in the everyday activities of human beings.

Paul Shoemaker

Wikipedia on The Planets

The Planets Op. 32 is a seven-movement orchestral suite by the English composer Gustav Holst, written between 1914 and 1916. The Planets is the most-performed composition by an English composer. Its first complete public performance was on October 10, 1918 in Birmingham, with Appleby Matthews conducting. However, an earlier invitation-only premiere occurred during World War I on September 29, 1918, in the Queen’s Hall in London, conducted by Adrian Boult.

The elaborate score of The Planets produces unusual, complex sounds by using some unique instruments and multiples of instruments in the large orchestra (like Mahler’s Sixth of 1906), such as three oboes, three bassoons, two piccolos, two harps, bass oboe, two timpani players, glockenspiel, celesta, xylophone, tubular bells, and organ (see “Instrumentation” below). Holst had been influenced by Stravinsky, who used four oboes and four bassoons in his Rite of Spring (1912-1913) and by Schoenberg’s 1909 composition titled “Five Pieces for Orchestra”.

Background

The concept of the work is astrological rather than astronomical (which is why Earth is not included). The idea was suggested to Holst by Clifford Bax, who introduced him to astrology when the two were amongst a small group of English artists holidaying in Majorca in the spring of 1913; Holst became quite a devotee of the subject, and liked to cast friends’ horoscopes for fun. Each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the human psyche, not the Roman deities. Holst also used Alan Leo’s book What is a Horoscope? as a springboard for his own ideas, as well as for the subtitles (i.e., “The Bringer of…”) for the movements.

The Queen’s Hall: where The Planets premiered in 1918

The Planets as a work in progress was originally scored for a piano duet, except for “Neptune,” which was scored for a single organ, as Holst believed that the sound of the piano was too harsh for a world as mysterious and distant as Neptune. Holst then scored the suite for a large orchestra and it was in this incarnation that it became enormously popular. Holst’s use of orchestration was very imaginative and colourful, showing the influence of Schoenberg, and other continental composers of the day rather than his English predecessors. The influence of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring is especially notable. These new (at least for British audiences) sonorities helped make the suite an instant success.

Although The Planets remains Holst’s most popular work, the composer himself did not count it among his best creations and later in life complained that its popularity had completely surpassed his other works. He did, however, conduct a recorded performance of the suite in the early 1920s, and he was partial to his own favourite movement, “Saturn”.

During the last weeks of World War I, the private orchestral premiere of The Planets suite was held at rather short notice on September 29, 1918 in the Queen’s Hall. It was hastily rehearsed; the musicians first saw the complicated music only two hours before the performance. Despite this auspicious venue, it was a comparably intimate affair, attended by around 250 invited associates, with a chamber orchestra and choir conducted by Boult at the request of his friends—Holst, and financial backer and fellow composer Balfour Gardiner. An ecstatically-received public concert was given a few weeks later while Holst was overseas, but out of the seven movements, only five were played. After the war, the first complete public performance occurred on October 10, 1920, in Birmingham. Holst himself conducted the London Symphony Orchestra performance of The Planets in 1926.

Instrumentation

The work is scored for four flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolo, fourth also doubling “bass flute in G” (alto flute) ), three oboes (the third doubling bass oboe), English horn, three clarinets in A and B flat, bass clarinet in B flat, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six French horns in F, four trumpets in C, three trombones, tenor tuba in B flat, tuba, timpani (six drums in total, requiring two players), bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, gong, tubular bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, organ, two harps and strings.

For “Neptune”, two three-part women’s choruses, located in an adjoining room which is to be screened from the audience, are required.

Structure

The suite has seven movements, each of them named after a planet and its corresponding Roman deity (see also Planets in astrology):

– 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

With the exception of the first two movements, the order of the movements corresponds to increasing distance of their eponymous planets from the Earth. Some commentators have suggested that this is intentional, with the anomaly of Mars preceding Venus being a device to make the first four movements match the form of a symphony.

One alternative explanation may be the ruling of astrological signs of the zodiac by the planets. If the zodiac signs are listed along with their ruling planets in the traditional order starting with Aries, ignoring duplication, Pluto (then undiscovered and now de-planetised), and the luminaries (the Sun and the Moon), then the order of the movements matches.

Another possibility, this time from an astronomical perspective, is that the first three movements, representing the inner terrestrial planets, are ordered according to their decreasing distance from the Sun. The remaining movements, representing the gas giants that lie beyond the asteroid belt, are ordered by increasing distance from the Sun. Critic David Hurwitz offers an alternative explanation for the piece’s structure: that “Jupiter” is the centerpoint of the suite and that the movements on either side are in mirror images. Thus “Mars” involves motion and “Neptune” is static; “Venus” is sublime while “Uranus” is vulgar, and “Mercury” is light and scherzando while “Saturn” is heavy and plodding. (This hypothesis is lent credence by the fact that the two outer movements, “Mars” and “Neptune,” are both written in rather unusual quintuple meter.)

“Neptune” was the first piece of music to have a fade-out ending. Holst stipulates that the women’s choruses are “to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed”, and that the final bar (scored for choruses alone) is “to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance”. Although commonplace today, the effect bewitched audiences in the era before widespread recorded sound – after the initial 1918 run-through, Holst’s daughter Imogen (in addition to watching the charwomen dancing in the aisles during “Jupiter”) remarked that the ending was “unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women’s voices growing fainter and fainter… until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence”.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Mars, the Bringer of War
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

Side Two

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Uranus, the Magician
Neptune, the Mystic

Leave a Reply