After its debut in 1918, Gustav Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets became an international phenomenon. Just two years later, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the work’s U.S. premiere in 1920. Many would argue that the work, written from 1914 to 1916, is the most famous British classical music composition of all time. But few realize that The Planets owes more to astrology than astronomy.
Each movement is named after a planet in the solar system and reflects its astrological character, as described by Holst:
- “Mars, the Bringer of War” (1914)
- “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” (1914)
- “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” (1916)
- “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” (1914)
- “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” (1915)
- “Uranus, the Magician” (1915)
- “Neptune, the Mystic” (1915)
The Planets (which the CSO will perform Nov. 21-24 under Juanjo Mena) became so popular during Holst’s lifetime that it conferred what would now be considered rock-star status on the composer. According to one of his biographers, Holst “hated its popularity. When people would ask for his autograph, he gave them a typed sheet of paper that stated that he didn’t give out autographs. The public seemed to demand of him more music like The Planets, and his later music seemed to disappoint them. How ironic that the piece that made his name famous throughout the world brought him the least joy in the end.”
So everlasting has been the work’s influence that by the 1970s, during the height of the prog-rock era, several bands paid tribute to The Planets, or used Holst’s music to inspire their own. Among the salutes:
King Crimson, the art-rock band fronted by ambient music master Robert Fripp, included a live arrangement of “Mars” on the band’s second release, “In the Wake of Poseidon” (1970).
Emerson, Lake & Powell, the spinoff band of Emerson, Lake & Palmer — the Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune of prog rock — featured an arrangement of “Mars, Bringer of War” on the group’s only studio album, released in 1986.
Jeff Wayne, rock impresario, and Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of Yes, offered a prog-rock version of the entire suite on their album “Beyond the Planets” (1985).
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page liked to interpolate riffs based on “Mars” during live performances of the group’s signature hit “Dazed and Confused” (1969).
A version of this post appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.