Like most kids, I was interested in space as a boy. I used to read the space section of my family’s junior encyclopaedia over and over again. I read sci-fi books, had space-themed toys, wrote little spacey stories. This was the late 1980s, and though the Challenger disaster was a terrifying recent memory to those older than me (I was only four when it happened) and therefore able to process and absorb what had happened, near-space exploration still seemed to be just the beginning of what we could, and in time would, do. The moon landings still weren’t that far in the past, I suppose.
In recent years, I’ve come to find the idea of space (as well as the idea of ocean depths) oppressive, bordering on scary. The idea of so much nothing is more than I get my head around. Perhaps it’d help if I were a scientist and could understand these things on a theoretical or molecular level. As it is, I find just thinking about space overwhelming, a situation perhaps not helped by seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, around five or six years ago: that dreadful shot of Frank Poole drifting off into nothingness without end, cut adrift by HAL, his oxygen supply severed. I probably hadn’t thought about space much as an adult, and to an adult – with an imagination more vivid and powerful than that of a child, but simultaneously more grounded in physical reality – the idea of being out there in such a blankly hostile environment wasn’t cool and exciting, it was terrifying.
We aren’t meant to be up there. We’re not built for it.
It’s improbable that these things were occupying Gustav Holst all that much when he wrote The Planets between 1914 and 1916. Holst was an amateur astrologer, and his movements are named after the qualities associated with the planets in astrology rather than astronomy.
The Planets‘ two most famous movements are Mars, the Bringer of War, the barnstorming opener, with its hysterically aggressive final section (emulated thousands of times in Hollywood movie scores) and relentless 5/4 ostinato, and Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, which contains at its heart the beautiful melody Thaxted, grievously misused (with Holst’s weary acquiescence) by Cecil Spring Rice as the tune for I Vow to Thee, My Country – loathsome, sentimental, nationalistic nonsense. (Thaxted was Holst’s home in my native county of Essex – in the 1910s and 1920s, Thaxted was a hotbed of Christian socialism, with Conrad Noel and Daisy, Countess of Warwick at its centre, and Holst as a sort of orbiting moon.)
The movements that interest me most are very different: Venus, the Bringer of Peace and Neptune, the Mystic. Venus’s beauty is heavenly, lulling flutes, a tinkling celeste, soft harps and mellifluous French horns, with only the double bass hinting of mystery and danger hidden behind that impassive-looking cloud structure.
Neptune (like Mars, in 5/4 time) is something else again, with its emphasis more on texture and atmosphere than melody (not to say that its melodies aren’t exquisite). This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. It’s most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble from the organ accompanied by arpeggios on the celeste. Harpists play continuous ascending and descending glissandos before, finally, the cellos and oboes play an ascending melody that just won’t resolve; Holst leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be. At this point the voices enter.
Holst does thrilling things with this chorus. Ralph Vaughan Williams, fellow composer and a lifelong friend of Holst’s, wrote penetratingly on its effect:
Such a work as Neptune, the Mystic seems to give us such a glance into the future—it ends, so to speak, on a note of interrogation. Many composers have attempted this, sometimes bringing in the common chord at the end as an unwilling tribute to tradition, sometimes sophisticating it by the addition of one discordant note, sometimes letting the whole thin out into a single line of melody; but Holst in Neptune actually causes the music to fade away to nothing. We look into the future, but its secrets remain closed to us.
The chorus does, as Holst says, “fade away to nothing”. The singers, screened so as never to be visible to the audience, slowly walk out of the concert hall into an adjoining room, and a door is closed quietly behind them. This in itself was a daring, near unprecedented, move, but in its totality, Neptune creates a vocabulary of space music that is still being employed today in movie scores*: delicate, sparse orchestration and quizzical chords, high, sustained strings, the interplay of deepest bass and lightest treble, the choice of instruments to create uncanny timbres – Neptune succeeds so well in evoking space (in a way that the other movements of the suite, no matter how successful, don’t try to – as they are intended to, they evoke the moods and humours the planets are associated with in astrology) that it spawned hundreds of imitators in the movies, and may fool us into thinking that Holst himself was working in an extant tradition rather than calling one into existence through the sheer scope of his imagination.
* Perhaps the most obvious Planets reference is in John Williams’s Star Wars music, which quotes the ending of Mars almost exactly. The mood of Neptune, meanwhile, is Hollywood’s default “mysterious space” mood, with the gentle moments of James Horner’s Aliens score, for example, deeply in hock to it.