Gustav Holst

The Planets

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 50-60 Minutes
Genre: Orchestral Suite
Time of Creation: 1914–1916
World Premiere: September 29, 1918 (private – London)/October 10, 1920 (public – Birmingham)

Table of Contents

Gustav Holst's The Planets in 5 Sentences

English composer Gustav Holst created The Planets/The Planets Suite, a suite for orchestra consisting of seven movements. Each movement is titled with a planet of the solar system, though Holst omitted the Earth. The order almost corresponds to the sequence in the solar system, though Holst reversed Mars and Mercury (Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune). In the musical representation of the individual planets, Holst was not concerned with astronomical exactness, but with characterizations of the Roman deities whose names are used for the planets. For example, Mars is “the bringer of war,” Venus “the bringer of peace,” and Mercury “the winged messenger.”

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Gustav Holst's The Planets

Highlight 1: Mars

Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite begins with Mars bringing war, which is immediately evident in the martial sound and whipping rhythm:

Highlight 2: Venus

Much more gentle is Venus, which stands for peace:

Highlight 3: Saturn

One of the most famous movements from Gustav Holst’s The Planets is Saturn, which Holst characterizes as the “bringer of old age.”

Highlight 4: Neptune

In the last movement of the suite, the Neptune, something remarkable happens – a women’s or children’s choir is added:

3 Questions and Answers about Gustav Holst's The Planets

Question 1: Why did Gustav Holst compose The Planets?

When Holst was vacationing in Mallorca in 1913, he developed an interest in astrology. For example, he began making horoscopes for friends. Then, a year later, he began composing his orchestral suite The Planets.

Question 2: How well known is Gustav Holst's The Planets?

Gustav Holst’s The Planets is one of those pieces that is much better known in English-speaking countries than in German-speaking countries. While the work is performed rather rarely in German-speaking countries, it is especially popular in Great Britain.

Question 3: What is special about Holst's The Planets?

The work had a great influence on film music. Holst uses the whole palette of timbres and creates monumental sound effects that actually never fail to have their effect.

2 Recommended Recordings of Gustav Holst's The Planets

Recording 1: NDR Radiophilharmonie, Andrew Manze (live, 2022)

In this performance, conductor Andrew Manze succeeds very well in “maneuvering” the NDR Radiophilharmonie through the constant ebb and flow of Holst’s music:

Recording 2: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Elysian Singers, Susanna Mälkki (live, 2015)

With such a “British” piece, of course, a recording from the BBC Proms is not to be missed. Here, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Elysian Singers, conducted by Susanna Mälkki, perform “Mars:”

1 Quote about Gustav Holst's The Planets

Until today the name Gustav Holst is known to most music lovers only because of this opus magnum, other works were and still are in the shadow of the seven-part suite. The fact that the composer could achieve fame with hardly any other composition is one of the peculiarities of music history and weighed heavily on him after this great success.

Alexander Moore

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