The 7-movement Planets suite remains the most-beloved work of British composer Gustav Holst. Composed between 1914-1916, the suite’s movements are named after the known planets in the solar system at that time: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Each suite has a distinct musical character to compliment the epithet of the planet associated with it. Let’s get started with our musical tour of the solar system!.
By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on The Planets.
MARS, BRINGER OF WAR
Mars: Bringer of War is perhaps the best-known section of the Planets suite. Mars opens The Planets, and it was considered shocking at the time for its dissonance. The piece slowly builds in tension, thanks to the pulse of a constant ostinato in 5/4 time. Holst instructed the strings to play col legno in this section; that is, to strike the strings with the stick of the bow. This creates a percussive effect that adds to the driving rhythm of the first movement.
JUPITER, BRINGER OF JOLLITY
Movement 4, Jupiter, begins with rambunctious cheer appropriate to the name. However, the movement climaxes in a poignant and stately melody. Holst later adopted this melody into a hymn he named Thaxted, after the town where he lived most of his life. Words were set to “Thaxted” to create the patriotic British hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”
SATURN, THE BRINGER OF OLD AGE
The fifth movement of The Planets, Saturn is an unsettling piece. The slow tempo of Saturn is evocative of old age. Alternating chords that open Saturn suggest the sound of a ticking clock. Unlike previous pieces of the suite, Saturn lacks percussion apart from tubular bells.
URANUS, THE MAGICIAN
Where Saturn ends on a whimper, Uranus leaps directly into the fray, opening with four loud notes in the brass. The overall character of the piece is mischievous, and it quickly turns into a galloping dance. Uranus ends with a climactic organ glissando before disappearing, much like an actual magician.
NEPTUNE, THE MYSTIC The final movement of The Planets is the icy, otherworldly Neptune. The piece makes use of harp and celesta to create ethereal textures. The piece notably features a wordless chorus sung by a women’s chorus offstage. The Planets ends with this chorus gradually fading into the distance.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Holst very intentionally chose the first four notes of Uranus, the Magician.
Read this article to learn more about Holst and the society in which he composed The Planets.
Contemporary film composer John Williams was influenced by Holst in creating the soundtrack for Star Wars. Listen to some of the other classical composers who influenced him.
Col legno is just one of many different violin techniques.
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