This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 414 published on 20 December 1969.
In the spring of 1913 Gustav von Holst, the director of music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London, went on holiday to the Spanish island of Majorca. There the English-born composer delighted in watching the clear night sky, and noticing how much larger and nearer the stars appeared to be. This heightened his interest in astrology, and on his return to England he became fascinated by the personalities of the various planets.
“As a rule,” he wrote to a friend, “I only study things that suggest music to me. . . . Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely . . . everything in this world . . . is just one big miracle. Or rather, the universe itself is one.”
So von Holst, who was of part-Danish descent, began work on his revolutionary orchestral suite, The Planets, which was to become a landmark on the British musical scene. The suite is in seven contrasting movements, beginning with Mars, the Bringer of War, which the composer wrote shortly before the start of the First World War.
During the hostilities, Holst dropped the German-sounding “von” from his name and went to Turkey to organize musical entertainments for the British troops out there. He completed Mercury, the Winged Messenger, in 1917, and so his suite was ready to be performed by a full orchestra.
The Planets was first heard at a private concert given for Holst and his friends in September 1918. The music, with its vitality and brilliant orchestration, made a profound impression on all who heard it. Holst’s own favourite movement was Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, with its deeply felt sense of the passage of time.
Two years later public performances were given in London and Chicago, and the suite rapidly gained popularity. Even the quiet Venus and mystical Neptune movements were acclaimed by the public and critics alike, and the modest, forty-six-year-old composer was besieged by well-wishers.
Success had not come easily to Gustav Holst, who had started his professional life as a village organist and choirmaster in the Cotswolds, at a salary of £4 a year. After leaving his home town of Cheltenham, he was at one stage forced to make a living as a trombonist in various theatre orchestras.
His appointment to St. Paul’s School – where he had his own soundproof workroom – ended his financial insecurity. And his Planets suite became one of the favourite pieces of music of such famous men as Lawrence of Arabia.