Earth and Sky

Saturday, December 4, 2010 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre

Qing Li

Pieces

Joan Tower - Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman
Chen Gang and He Zhanhao - Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto
Gustav Holst - The Planets
Program Notes

GUSTAV HOLST (1874-1934)

THE PLANETS

COMPOSED: 1914-1917

PREMIERED: London, England, September 1918

Despite his German-Swedish name (he was born von Holst), Gustav Holst was as English as his close friend Vaughan Williams, and a leader in the English folksong revival. The Planets is by far his best known work, so much so that it has largely eclipsed his other music and his astonishingly wide influence. He taught at Harvard in 1931; his students included the young Elliott Carter. It was only the disease that eventually killed him that prevented him from staying longer and adding another layer to his already complex nationality.

Holst was deeply interested in Indian culture – so much so that he taught himself Sanskrit and made his own translations of Vedic texts to set to music. Those texts led him to astrology, which in turn led to The Planets. The movements (and their names) evoke the astrological “meaning” of each planet, not of the gods whose names they bear. Only the regal, Elgarian middle section of Jupiter allows for Jupiter being King of the Gods. There is no Pluto (only discovered in 1930) – and, perhaps strangely, no Earth. The order of planets in the work is roughly the order they were written in, except that Mercury was written last.

Mars is the ultimate musical evocation of war and destruction, set in an unsettling 5/4 with a threatening, hammering rhythmic figure that has been “borrowed” for countless movie scores. Hans Zimmer learned the hard way that Mars was still in copyright in 2006 when he “repurposed” it for Gladiator. When Vaughan Williams first saw the piece, he encouraged Holst to add “more row!!” – which he obviously did.

Venus is easily the most emotionally delicate music that Holst ever wrote, even creeping towards the Romanticism that he spent his life trying to avoid. This is Holst’s personal concept of Heaven.

Mercury is the reason that The Planets is often called a seven-movement Concerto for Orchestra, with alarming virtuoso writing, especially for woodwind, that would have given Ravel pause. Note the message-boy’s tinkling bell!

Jupiter gives us a strangely pan-English Zeus, with a bustling opening that points directly to Walton and a central “Trio” that could have come from a Pomp and Circumstance March if only it were not in 3-4 time. Holst fiercely resented its use as a super-patriotic hymn – I Vow to Thee, My Country. Saturn grafts Debussy’s harmony onto near-Bartókian obsession before phasing into a soaring Vaughan Williams-ish image of a strangely empty Beyond – the Nirvana to Venus’s Heaven.

Uranus is not just a magician, but a mountebank evoked with jarring atonal brass figures that could well have been a poke at Schoenberg, who was forging into the atonal wilderness in 1918. But the stillness of the closing passage suggests that there is an actual nowhere for it all to lead.

Neptune is Debussy – even Scriabine - but not quite; either would have been alarming in 1918’s London. The endlessly curling woodwind figures that Holst derived from Middle Eastern music lead to a receding loop of repeating chords (scored for offstage female chorus) that do resolve, but somehow never end – quite literally the Infinite.

About the Concert

Over a hundred musicians take the stage for Holst’s unforgettable depictions not just of the planets themselves, but the human emotions and passions represented by the gods for which they are named. First, Baltimore Symphony violinist Qing Li joins the orchestra for a ravishing, romantic score based on an ancient Chinese legend, and our marvelous brass and percussion sections shine in Joan Tower’s fanfare.

Join us at 6:30pm for a "Prelude," a fun, fascinating pre-concert discussion with Bill Scanlan Murphy brought to you by Baltimore-Washington Financial Advisors.

Baltimore Washington Financial Advisors

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