Something Old: Music of the Spheres, Part 2

For the first part of this please click here.


Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst

As part of Dublin City of Science 2012, the city played host to ESOF 2012. This was a gathering of science folk, where they met to discuss, well, science! Because of this event Holst’s The Planets, Op32. was scheduled to coincide with this important and prestigious event. Although the link is quite tenuous, I did’t care as it meant that I finally got to go see this live. The Planet’s will always have a special place in my music collection as it was the first piece of orchestral music that I ever owned.

The Planets is a seven movement orchestral suite which was written between 1914-1916. It is is about fifty minutes long so chugging glasses of wine at the interval is not advised. Each movement of the suite is based on a planet in the Solar System and how Holst imagined their influence to be. It is an astrological representation of the planets, hence Earth is not included (it is also not very sciencey but we can over look that). Pluto is not included either as it was only discovered in 1930 and Holst was not bothered creating a movement for it. This was because of the love-hate relationship that he developed with the music, he felt The Planets over-shadowed other works of his, which were in his opinion, of better quality. It all worked out for the best as Pluto is not categorised as a planet any more anyway.

Mars, the Bringer of War

The suite opens with a bang as Mars the bringer of war makes its entrance. This was the boys favourite piece of the night and it commands attention like no other. The movement is loud, strong and unrelenting, the purpose being to create an image of warfare. Throughout the moment you can hear the orchestra painting the scene of a mighty battle with the sounds of marching, planes swooping and firing artillery. The music evokes a panicked, urgent air in between military battle blasts and loud triumphant motifs.

We were sitting right above the orchestra for this and it the sheer power of the music was incredible.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like sitting in the orchestra in the midst of the sound itself because it was really loud and booming!

Venus, The Bringer of Peace

A stark contrast to the drama of Mars, Venus begins with soothing tones and melodies emulating the essence of peace. Delicate and light, you could not hear a sound from the audience while this was played. The inclusion of the harp and celesta add an ethereal, heavenly air to the movement which floats and ebbs. It does have a hint of pressing sadness to the sound which gives it a layer of complexity that hints at a picture that goes deeper than just a scene of peace.

Mercury, The Winged Messenger

This a movement where there is a strong celestial feel. Scales are used to depict Mercury skipping through the air carrying important heavenly messages. A hoping motif bounces around the orchestra, being played by many different instruments, almost like Mercury is bouncing between them. It is a spritely, busy movement at times almost sounds like buzzing bees.

Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity

This is my favourite movement of the suite and is the one that I always turn up to ear-splitting levels. The beginning is busy and exciting, just like a great party being announced. It is another full sounding piece but it is very different sound to that of Mars, saying come have a party rather than come fight a war. Sections of instruments pick up the melody which to me sounds like they are spreading the invitation for one and all to come have some fun.

It then breaks into a dance like tune and the listener gets a vivid image of people dancing and having a great time. Not before long a motif enters which I have always imagined to be Jupiter itself showing the guests how the dancing is done. More instruments them take up the theme like everyone joining in and the music quickens and gets louder. The tambourine and trumpets are used to great affect here, reaffirming the idea of dancing and jollity.

The movement then turns into a quieter section where the strings play a main sweeping, blissful melody. The music is regal, beautiful and has an almost hopeful element to it with an air of triumph and glory. I am always afraid that I have started singing along to the music at this point and must check myself to make sure that I’m not.

This movement has, in my opinion, the best ending of the suite and I think it would have made for a better final ending that Neptune (which will be discussed below). The end is created using swirling low tones which sounds like you are in a vortex, about to be blasted off to another dimension before strong blasts signal the end of the movement.

Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age

This is Holst’s favourite piece in the suite and yet it is one of the lesser known ones. We return to a quiet piece, much like Venus, but again the atmosphere is very different. There is a steady plodding motif throughout, developing the idea of time ticking on and old age approaching. Over this base line, melodies curl and spin giving a spirit like feeling. The piece then brightens before returning to the steady motif from the start.  It is a bit spooky and dark and it has some frightening elements to it, much like I imagine many people feel about old age. At times it gets quite loud before, the notes tumble in a discordant fashion. This sounds to me like the chimes of a clock announcing that the time has come. The bells are used to emulate the ticking of a clock which is very cleverly executed.

But the end has a less scary feel. The ticking of the clock continues by the plunking of the strings and the chiming of the bells. It sounds like the listener has made peace with the fact that we all must age and it is quite an angelic, graceful ending.

Uranus, The Magician

This begins with another loud blast and dramatic drums. The melody is whimsical and lumbering, but in a good way. It sounds like a carnival, brassy and bright but with a slight air of menace. It has a marching motif which slides into discordant sounds. This movement does not feel safe the way Jupiter does. You can imagine a magician up to no good, warping the laws of nature for their own uses. It is quite an eccentric piece, crafting a vision of a jester hiding some deep, dangerous hidden knowledge. Either that or of a bumbling magician who keeps getting it wrong to disastrous consequences. Why not have a listen and see what you think?

Neptune, The Mystic

This is the last movement of the suite when it has been played in its entirety. At some concerts only a few of the movements are played and often they ended with Jupiter. This was said to have annoyed Holst a great deal and he felt it was a cop-out to have a happy ending rather than the one that he had designed with Neptune, which has a very different feel to it.

Neptune envelops listeners in a light, yet chilling sound which mimics the idea of the vast empty space of far away parts of the galaxy. It has a sense of being deep underwater with strings playing a soft, high melody and the wind instruments sailing above them in a swirling, spinning tune. The tinkling of the celesta adds to the celestial atmosphere reinforcing the sense of deep, all consuming space.

This is also the only piece that voices are used. A haunting choir of voices joins the orchestra from a room hidden from the audience. The New Dublin Voices sang the melody for this evening. It adds an eerie, echoing dynamic to the music capturing the sense of space really wonderfully. The movement then fades out drawing the audiences breath with it. The composer, Matthew Coorey held the orchestra for what seemed like an eternity and we were all terrified to move. But then he relaxed and everyone else was ale to do the same.


It was a great show and I really enjoyed it. The Gershwin was a lot of fun and we had a fantastic debate about which planet was our favourite. The boys were playing Mars at home all weekend after which may have scared the cat for a while. If you have a chance to go and see either of these pieces performed live, you should go. I promise you won’t be disappointed!


View from the balcony

View from the balcony

I mentioned in previous posts that when we sat in front of the stage we were only able to see the piano and string sections. This time we decided to sit in a side balcony to get a different perspective. From here we could see the wind, brass and percussion sections much better and could still see the piano and violin. We did however then lose sight of the cellos as we were seated directly over them. My advice would be if you are going to a concert decided what section you would like to see and pick the seats accordingly.

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