About this Recording
8.550193 - HOLST: Planets (The) / Suite de Ballet, Op. 10

Gustav Holst (1874 - 1934)
The Planets Op. 32
Suite de Ballet, Op. 10


The English composer Gustav Holst was the son of a musician and descended from a family of mixed Scandinavian, German and Russian origin that had settled in England in the early nineteenth century. His childhood was spent in Cheltenham, where his father supervised his study of the piano. A later period at the Royal College of Music in London brought a lasting friendship with Ralph Vaughan Williams, an association that was to the advantage of both in their free criticism and discussion of one another's compositions.

After a short time spent earning a living as a trombonist, touring with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and playing with the Scottish Orchestra, Holst decided to devote himself as far as possible to composition, Teaching positions, and particularly his long association with St. Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, and his work as director of music at Morley College, allowed him some time, at least in the' summer holidays, but the relatively even tenor of his life, that suited his diffident character, was considerably disturbed by the enormous popular success of The Planets. His later music never achieved such a lasting triumph with the public, although his Shakespearian opera. At the Boar's Head and his so-called First Choral Symphony, written for the Leeds Festival, aroused contemporary interest in a composer from whom much was now expected, and the Hymn of Jesus has retained an honourable if relatively infrequent position in the choral repertoire.

The Planets was completed in 1916, after a number of years' work on the project. Its inspiration may be found in Holst's interest in astrology, awakened by conversation with his friend, the writer Clifford Bax, who was to provide the libretto for the last of Holst's operas, The Wandering Scholar. This enthusiasm accorded well with his long-standing fascination with Sanskrit, with Hindu literature and thought. The first performance, a private one, was paid for by the composer Balfour Gardiner and given with only two hours rehearsal, shortly before the composer's departure for Salonica, for work with the Y.M.C.A. Army Education scheme. In 1919 the first partial public performance took place, followed in 1920 by the first public performance of the whole work.

Holst himself disavowed any programme in The Planets, apart from that suggested in the titles of the movements. Nevertheless for the first audience Mars seemed to echo the horrors of the war that had just ended, while Jupiter fitted well enough current feelings of patriotism. Venus is serene in mood, a contrast to Mars. Mercury is mercurial, and Saturn depicts something of the bleakness of old age. Uranus has the curious gait of some sorcerer's apprentice, leading to the final revelation of the infinity of space in Neptune, with its off-stage female chorus.

The Suite de Ballet, in the key of E flat, was written in 1899 and revised in 1912. It would be unfair to include it among those first compositions that Holst himself characteristically and modestly described as "early horrors". In 1898 he had completed his studies at the Royal College of Music and embarked on his brief career as an orchestral trombonist with the Carl Rosa Company, the influence of which we might detect in the Suite. The work received its first performance at the Queen's Hall in London on 29 June 1904.

The Suite is a forthright and attractive work. Its opening rustic dance is followed by a theatrical invitation to the waltz. The dramatic conclusion of the second section leads to a romantic and extended violin solo in the Scene de Nuit and a final Carnival in which Imogen Holst recognises the genuine voice of her father for a few brief moments.

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