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Arts Desk

The Story About Gustav Holst's 'The Planets'

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One of the most beloved and exciting works in the orchestral repertoire is The Planets by Gustav Holst. But the way we hear it now is not the form in which audiences first heard it.

For such an immediately successful work, and for one that is central to the orchestral repertoire, The Planets took a long time to get off the ground.

Holst began composing it in 1914 for piano duet. The last movement, Neptune, he wrote for organ. He finished it in 1916, but audiences didn’t hear it for two years, and even then, never in a complete version. It is, after all, about 50 minutes long, and conductors shied away from presenting all of its innovative sounds at one time. And that fade-out ending was something hardly any composer had attempted. 

Holst then transcribed it for a huge orchestra, with two piccolos, two tubas, two timpanists, and a divided women’s choir. Finally, in 1920, six years after he began The Planets, the London Symphony Orchestra gave the first complete public performance. 

The work is based on astrological signs, which fascinated Holst, and not on the astronomical planets, which explains why Earth does not appear.  Although Pluto was discovered and named a planet in 1930, and the composer lived until 1934, he had absolutely no interest in adding a movement. The piece had become so popular that it overshadowed his other music, and Gustav Holst was frankly tired of hearing The Planets.

From its fitful beginning, maybe that’s a good kind of problem to have.