Tag Archives: Neptune the Mystic

The concert hall vs the microphone & loudspeaker

Here’s a quick aside.

Last night I went to the Barbican to a performance of Gustav Holst’s Planets by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon and with between-movement remarks by Brian Cox. This was to mark the centenary of the first performance of the suite. I’d have preferred Cox to have spoken at the start and the music to have been performed without interruption, but it was still a fun evening that I enjoyed a lot.

It was also an evening where I realised how much my appreciation of certain aspects of The Planets has been coloured by the recordings through which I became familiar with the music.

Recordings of classical music function differently from pop recordings. The pop recording – since the early to mid 1960s at any rate – has not functioned as a straightforward reproduction of a musical performance. It’s an art form in itself, one not assumed to be inferior (or, it should also be said, superior) to the same song performed live in concert. Pop fans are comfortable with the idea that a song heard on the radio would sound little like the same song performed live, and that any or all elements of the vocal performance and arrangement may differ, even in terms of the basics like tempo and key.

Classical music engineers have, in contrast, striven to create as clear a reproduction of the performed music as possible, ideally putting themselves in service of the conductor’s vision of the music by recording it as neutrally as possible. (Terms such as “neutral” would be hotly debated by audiophiles and the recording engineer community, but I’m arguing in broad strokes here, so go with me on this.) The choices and preferences of the engineer and producer would scarcely come into it, and listeners at home should hear what the conductor would have wanted them to hear in the concert hall.

Neptune, the Mystic is one of my favourite pieces of music, and I’ve written at length about it here before:

This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. Its most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble 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 repeatedly leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be.

It came as something of a surprise to me, when hearing it performed in the concert hall last night, that my love of this music is so informed by the specific recording I know best: Charles Groves conducting the Royal Philharmonic at the acoustically wonderful Watford Town Hall in 1987, recorded by Telarc Digital.

Telarc were the first classical label aboard the digital-recording bandwagon, working with Thomas Stockham and his Soundstream recorder in the 1970s, so these guys wrote the book on digital recordings of large ensembles. Their 1987 Planets sounds excellent. But no recording can truly recreate what it sounds, and feels, like to hear music in an auditorium. Some of the otherworldly mystery I love so much in Neptune, the Mystic seems to me now to come from that recording. Its somewhat attentuated low end allows a slight dominance in the treble register – the harps, flutes and celeste – that make the music so, for want of a better word, spacey. Further away. Mysterious. Dangerous. The sense of threat carried by the low strings is felt more than heard, which makes it all the more troubling.

In the room, the same passages of music sounded muscular and earthbound, balanced more equally between high and low. Obviously this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a different thing, and one not wholly down to the conductor’s choices. The fact remains that music heard acoustically hits your ear differently to music mediated by recording and playback technology. What’s surprising to me is that I prefer the mediated version. It’s closer to what I want the music to deliver emotionally.

 

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Space music – Holst’s Neptune, the Mystic

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.

Neptune_Full
Neptune, currently somewhere between 4.2 and 4.4 billion kilometres away

* 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.