The Planets, Reimagined • Gary Kelley
Gustav Holst • The Planets, with new artwork by Gary Kelley
Artist Gary Kelley brings Gustav Holst’s extraordinary magnum opus to life in a riveting and completely unique artistic collaboration with the WCFSO. The 2007 original was one of the most captivating local artistic events in recent memory; this reimagined version of Gary Kelley’s Planets takes the project to new heights, with world premiere artwork, completely reimagined story and Scott W. Smith’s HD video presentation. The concert will also feature an appearance by Gary offering insight into his creative process. This special performance is the symphony at our best, transforming a favorite masterpiece into a truly remarkable sensory experience. Not to be missed!
Gustav Holst • The Planets
Among the great triumvirate of English composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Holst - the latter probably remains the least understood. This is, no doubt, due to his intense interest in the study of Eastern theology, Sanskrit, and astrology. But each endeavor was aimed at furthering his music. He once wrote:
As a rule I only study things that suggest music to me. That’s why I worried at Sanskrit. Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely. It’s a pity we make such a fuss about these things. On one side there is nothing but abuse and ridicule, with the overwhelming proofs there is a danger of going to the other extreme. Whereas, of course, everything in this world—writing a letter for instance—is just one big miracle. Or rather, the universe itself is one.
Holst focused upon Sanskrit so that he would study Hindu epics in their original text. He was constantly searching for Wisdom, and was a voracious reader. He did not drink or smoke and was a strict vegetarian.
Holst’s study of horoscopes (his selfproclaimed “pet vice”) had nothing to do with the writing of The Planets. His daughter has written that “once he had taken the underlying idea from astrology. he let the music have its way with him.” The work was begun in 1914, with “Mars, the Bringer of War” the only movement completed before the onset of World War I. While this might seem a vivid observation of world events, it is only a coincidence—Holst’s actual commentary on that time emerges in another piece, his setting of Walt Whitman’s Dirge for Two Veterans, for male voices, brass and drums.
It is difficult to imagine The Planets in anything but a large hall, filled to capacity with performers and listeners. Yet the premiere of Planets was a semiprivate performance on September 28, 1918 with members of the London Symphony. It would be three years before the work would be heard by the public, pushing Holst’s fame to previously unseen heights.
Holst’s monumental “suite” was unlike anything yet written in Great Britain. In its expressive quality, its inventiveness of the elements of music, its brilliant orchestration, The Planets stands with Strauss’ Salome and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as one of the great compositions of its time. It opens with the harsh tones of “Mars”, carrying massive blocks of sound which seem to represent passing objects in space, all driven by an omnipresent rhythmic ostinato in 5 beats. This is music that graphically announces the tragic cataclysm of war.
“Venus—the Bringer of Love” offers an abrupt change of mood. The music reflects Holst’s early interest in the music of Richard Wagner - the use of leitmotivs would greatly influence many of his early works, including the monumental First Suite for Military Band. This is the most lush and translucent of orchestrations, summing up in most beautiful terms an emotion which the goddess of love must have inspired.
“Mercury—the Winged Messenger” is a sprightly, gay romp through the stars. Holst’s choice of instrumentation is muted throughout much of the movement, rising only in a central sequence which never gets too overdrawn.
Holst’s daughter relates how, during the first private performance of “Jupiter—the Bringer of Jollity”, “the charwomen working in the corridors put down their scrubbingbrushes and began to dance.” Such is the effect of this infectiously joyous music. A delightful dance, it is cast in a binary form (ABA), with a stately folk-like tune forming the centerpiece of the movement.
The initial public reaction to “Saturn—the Bringer of Old Age” was not overly positive although Holst himself admitted that it was his favorite portion of the work.
“Neptune—the Mystic” ventures farthest from the reaches of tonal and rhythmic regularity: its musical elements, like the knowledge of that cold planet, are necessarily ambivalent. The addition of an offstage wordless choir, fading off into the distance, leaves the feeling of perpetual vacuum at the far end of The Planets.
• Brian Hughes