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The Planets

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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 1920 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".


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. In 2003, this was released on C by IMP.


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.

Non-orchestral versions

  • One piano, four hands: "... John York found an engraved copy of Holst's own piano duet arrangement.";
  • One harp: Holst's own solo harp arrangement.
  • Two pianos: For a recording of a two-piano version, see Naxos-catalog-item-8.554369. Holst originally composed the suite for two pianos. He had his assistants play the four-hands version to aid in composition.
  • Organ: transcription by Peter Sykes.
  • Brass ensemble: the Empire Brass has recorded a shortened version of Jupiter.
  • Brass band: the Black Dyke Band has recorded and performed the complete suite in a transcription by Stephen Roberts.
  • Symphonic Band transcriptions written by Holst himself of Mars and Jupiter exist and are currently published by Boosey and Hawkes. A transcription for symphonic wind ensemble of the complete seven-movement suite was written by Merlin Patterson in 1998. (see "Media" below)


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

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  6. Uranus, the Magician
  7. 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 centrepoint 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".


Pluto was discovered in 1930, four years before Holst's death, and was hailed by astronomers as a new planet. Holst expressed no interest in writing a movement for it — he had become disillusioned by the popularity of the suite, believing that it took too much attention away from his other works.

Numerous other composers have written their own Pluto movements. In 2000, the Hallé Orchestra commissioned the composer Colin Matthews, a Holst specialist, to write a new eighth movement, which Matthews entitled Pluto, the Renewer. Dedicated to Imogen Holst, Gustav Holst's daughter, it was first performed in Manchester on May 11 2000, with Kent Nagano conducting the Hallé Orchestra. Matthews changed the ending of Neptune slightly so that the movement would lead directly into Pluto.

In August 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) for the first time defined the term "planet", which resulted in a change in Pluto's status, from a planet to a dwarf planet. Thus, Holst's original work is once again a complete representation of all the extra-terrestrial planets in the Solar System.

Uses of The Planets

British patriotism

The melody of the slow middle section of Jupiter was arranged to form the hymn tune Thaxted (named after the village where Holst lived for many years). Holst adapted the work in 1921 to fit the metre of a poem beginning " I vow to thee, my country" that was written between 1908 and 1918 by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice. The lyrics in their final version were a response to the human cost of World War I. The hymn was first performed in 1925 and quickly became a patriotic anthem, although Holst had no such intentions when he originally composed the music. Another adaptation would be the tune used for the hymn "O God beyond all praising". An excerpt from Jupiter has also been used by ITV (a terrestrial TV company in the UK) as a theme tune for coverage of the Rugby Union World Cup since 1991, in a piece called 'World in Union'

Films, television and video games

Cliff Eidelman's 1991 score to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was inspired by the sound of The Planets, a copy of which was given to him by director Nicholas Meyer.

Bill Conti's score for the 1983 motion picture The Right Stuff quotes "Mars" and "Jupiter" in Track 4, "Glenn's Flight."

John Williams' score to Star Wars is very similar to parts of The Planets in many places. In particular, the scenes in which the Millenium Falcon is pulled into the Death Star by tractor beam, and near the end of the film when the Rebel Alliance flee the impending explosion of the Death Star, music is featured which bears striking resemblance to strains from "Mars."

During the second season of The Venture Bros, during the episode " Hate Floats", Monarch Agents 21 and 24 sing a passage from "Mars" to celebrate their being called back to duty.

In the soundtrack of the computer video game Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, the song "Siege" contains numerous allusions and rhythmic resemblance to "Mars."

"Mars" was featured as the main theme song for the computer video game Outpost.

"Saturn" was featured toward the end of the Mark Wahlberg movie "The Yards" as Wahlberg's character was riding on a subway train.

"Mars" is the opening title theme song to Ambrosia Software's "Escape Velocity."


The theme from "Jupiter" was used in an Australian advertisement in early 2008 for Bundaberg Rum.

Popular culture

Portions of The Planets, particularly "Mars" with its pounding 5/4 ostinato, have been covered and quoted extensively in heavy metal music, progressive rock, and electronica.

  • Frank Zappa playing with The Mothers of Invention plays the refrain of Jupiter in "The Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin" on Absolutely Free. This segment is excluded from the live version continued within "Call Any Vegetable" on Just Another Band From LA [1972].
  • King Crimson's 1969 incarnation would play an improvised interpretation of "Mars, the Bringer of War" as the encore of their live set, with guitar, bass, and drums playing the 5/4 time ostinato, while Ian McDonald would improvise over the rhythmic pulse on the mellotron. The same piece appears on their 1970 album In the Wake of Poseidon as "The Devil's Triangle", so named for the three sections of the song, gradually becoming more and more improvised and avant-garde.
  • The intro to the song " Eyes of the Word" by British hard rock band Rainbow is based on "Mars, the Bringer of War". Band's drummer Cozy Powell subsequently based his solo, while touring with Emerson, Lake & Powell and Black Sabbath, on the same piece.
  • The intro to the song " Am I Evil" by British heavy metal band Diamond Head is also based on "Mars, the Bringer of War".
  • The chorus of the east coast thrash band Overkill's "Who Tends the Fire" (Megaforce 82045-2, 1989) is based on the Mars theme.
  • The intro and some interior sections of American death metal band Nile's "Ramses Bringer of War" (Relapse 6983, 1998) are based on Holst's Mars.
  • "The Divine Wings of Tragedy" by progressive metal band Symphony X (SPV 72833, 1999) includes a refrain of Mars material that holds the extended composition together.
  • "War (Mars, The Bringer of War)" by Van Helsing’s Curse (Koch 9524, 2003) is simply a reproduction of Mars with a voice-over.
  • Italian power metal band Domine does a song called "Mars, The Bringer of War" (Dragonheart, 1999) which uses significant Mars material.
  • A synthesized version of "Mars, The Bringer of War" appears on a self-titled Emerson, Lake & Powell album. (Polydor 5191, 1986)
  • The bridge of "Boom!" by hard rock band System of a Down (Sony 87062, 2002) is based on Mars.
  • The intro to " White Room" by Cream (Polydor 827578, 1968) is essentially a reworking of Mars theme material.
  • British pop artist Sands included some Mars material in the outro to "Listen to the Sky" (Rev-Ola 176, 2007) on a compilation of the same name.
  • Rick Wakeman recorded an abridged version of the entire suite called "Beyond The Planets" (telstar uk, 1985) with a 4 piece rock band.
  • Mars was rendered in techno stylings on the cd TechnoClassix: Never Mind Beethoven (Berwick Street 1, 1993); the track is called "Mars (the bringer of techno)".
  • Masque (Manfred Mann's Earth Band album) features parts of the Suite - of particular note is the first track "Joybringer(From Jupiter)" which is "Jupiter" with lyrics.
  • Part of "Jupiter" is used by Norwegian black metal artist Bathory in the song "Hammerheart" of the "Twilight of the Gods" album.
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