On My Shelves: Holst’s _The Planets_

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There are a few classical pieces known to almost everyone; Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance (from graduations everywhere), Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor. Many more are known, but not always immediately recognized by name, as they get played in part or in whole in many different settings.

But in the world of SF geeks, there are some with special significance, and of these, few could compete with Gustav Holst's The Planets, a suite of seven pieces each representing one of the major planets (other than Earth). These are usually presented in the order:

  • Mars, Bringer of War
  • Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  • Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  • Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  • Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  • Uranus, the Magician
  • Neptune, the Mystic

Besides the obvious "space" theme, this suite of music has been heavily inspirational to makers of many works of science fiction and fantasy.

I first encountered The Planets when I was, I think, fourteen, in a version by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Leopold Stokowski; someone, I think my brother, had borrowed the record from a neighbor, and I listened to it – and instantly fell in love with the music. The local record stores didn't have this version any more, and so I bought the record from our neighbor with my own money.

I played that record so many times over the years that I wore it out; by the end the sound was badly degraded. But by then I'd practically memorized it. Each of the movements was well-suited to its title and the symbolism of its planet – the hammering beat of Mars, the slow, dark-to-acceptance of Saturn, the dramatic pomposity of the Magician Uranus, the powerful joy of Jupiter – and were endlessly inspirational to me as I began the work on my own universe (that eventually became the one seen in the Balanced Sword trilogy and Paradigms Lost).

While all of the movements have been inspirational to many, two of them utterly overshadow the rest: Mars and Jupiter.

Mars' relentless, driving, brassy theme has been used directly in movies, television, and video games, but more than that has in its tone and beat inspired multiple other pieces of music – the Imperial March from Star Wars, and to an extent another of Williams' masterpieces, Jaws. The main alien theme from Gunbuster is a clear derivative of Mars, Bringer of War. In fact, it's a fairly good bet that any time you hear a villain or destructive force theme with a hammering beat and a classical vibe, it was inspired in at least part by Mars.

Jupiter's theme has inspired a number of other pieces of music; Holst himself adapted part of the theme to the hymn "I Vow to Thee, My Country", and it has been heard in pure or adapted form in Bill Conti's music for The Right Stuff, the 2003 World Cup music, and even an advertisement for Reeses' Peanut Butter Cups!

In my case, both pieces helped inspire much of my writing. Mars became the theme song for a planned trilogy of stories: Juggernaut, Juggernaut Awakened, and The Forgotten Weapon, all centered around a nigh-indestructible cybernetic war machine called, naturally, the Juggernaut. While I doubt now that I'll ever complete the trilogy – part of its background no longer works, for one, and for another, other people have done cybernetic war machines to death – much of the imagery and thought put into those, while listening to Mars, informed later work I have done. And Mars, Bringer of War still inspires me when I'm writing something dark and grim and powerful.

But if anything is the musical heart and soul of my writing, it is Jupiter; this powerful, endlessly uplifting piece of music was the first theme for Terian and the Wanderer, and for the launch of the first starship from Earth in one of the first stories I ever wrote. It sings in the background of Grand Central Arena, and in the foreground – for the final bars of that powerful piece of music are the music for the trailer made for GCA back in 2010. That triumphant theme also thunders and echoes in the very foundations of Zarathan, forming the spirit of the Greatest Dragons and the thousand thousand heroes who walk its paths. There are a few – a very few – pieces of music that may equal it, but none surpass it in its ability to send chills of wonder down my spine.

To my surprise, Stokowski's version of The Planets is available on iTunes – for a mere four dollars. If by any chance you've never listened to this wonderful suite of classical pieces, try it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

Comments

  1. ocanderson4 says:

    I have never played the full version but I have played the first 3 movements of the planets. One day I hope to play the full suite…. Many people don’t know this the what we call the Pomp and Circumstance is actually the second movement of that piece. To your list of instantly known pieces I would add Handel’s Messiah especially the Hallelujah Chorus and Pachelbel’s Cannon in D. I might also add the most famous of John Philip Sousa’s marches, The Star Spangled Banner.

    • Bo Lindbergh says:

      I think you got your music titles slightly mixed up there…
      Anyway, “The Liberty Bell” is Sousa’s most recognisable work in these parts, thanks to Monty Python.

      • ocanderson4 says:

        Just where is these parts? I come from a heavy Drum and Bugle Corps area. Not to mention that of my elementary, middle school, high school and college band instructors only one of them may not have had any military experience. (I am not for sure on that but I know all the others had at least 15 plus years.) I have never seen any of the Monty Python works though I have heard of them so I can’t comment on that.

        • Bo Lindbergh says:

          Posting from (currently slushy) Sweden.

          • ocanderson4 says:

            Ahhhh, okay. I am from the central US so that explains that difference. Which music title did I get mixed up? The Pomp and Circumstance Marches (full title Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches), Op. 39, are a series of marches for orchestra composed by Sir Edward Elgar. March No. 1 in D is the best known of them. In the United States, the Trio section “Land of Hope and Glory” of March No. 1 is often known simply as “Pomp and Circumstance” or as “The Graduation March” and is played as the processional tune at virtually all high school and some college graduation ceremonies. I did not know that it was only one of a series. Thank you for making me curious enough to go look it up.

  2. Now that’s interesting stuff. I sometimes speculate about what drives authors, but honestly classical music never entered my mind. You could certainly do worse than Holst. Now I’m going to keep thinking of music when I read. I’ve unfortunately read a couple cheapie things recently (Amazon freebies) that instantly bring to mind an endless slew of high school garage bands.

    For the most recognized list, I nominate the 1812 Overture.

  3. When I hear Jupiter (at least as rendered in the GCA trailer), its beginning (the buildup part) inevitably reminds me of the hymn “O God Beyond All Praising“.

  4. Ashley R Pollard says:

    When writing I tend to listen to the music from the Lord of the RIngs movie trilogy, which I find doesn’t distract from the task at hand.

Your comments or questions welcomed!