The Planets and Beyond

Glacier Symphony opens its 34th concert season with “The Planets and Prokofiev”

By Clare Menzel
Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev. Courtesy Photo

The early 20th century astrologer Alan Leo, known as the father of modern astrology, begins his 1912 treatise “The Art of Synthesis,” a study of planets and consciousness, with a classification of the divine soul and humankind’s pilgrimage through “the mud of earth.” As he describes it, human souls manifest in order “to gain experience, to grow in wisdom, in love, and in power; and they can only do this by coming into practical touch with the world around them.” A soul’s physical and temporal relation to the universe, then, has great bearing on its ability to struggle and advance spiritually. Celestial bodies, Leo posits, govern different aspects of the soul, and he assigns the different planets to their domains: Mercury, the thinker; Venus, the unifier; Mars, the energizer, and so on.

The text is thought to have inspired English composer and spiritual theosophist Gustav Holst, who, between 1914 and 1916, composed a masterpiece titled, “The Planets,” a work with seven movements, each titled for a planet. Like Leo imagined planets to hold sway over the soul in different ways, each of the orchestral suite’s movements, which have been described as a series of “mood pictures,” musically evoke their namesake’s certain astrological character. And while Leo’s work has faded from the mainstream over the last century, Holst’s magnum opus remains among the top 10 orchestral pieces in symphony repertoires, according to John Zoltek, music director and conductor of Glacier Symphony and Chorale.

The symphony opens its 34th season at 3 p.m. on Oct. 15 with “The Planets and Prokofiev,” a two-part concert featuring Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev in Sergi Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” and Holst’s “The Planets.” Prokofiev, also a well-known 20th century composer, worked during the same era as Holst, and these two pieces were written within years of each other.

“We’re playing two major works from the same time period,” Zoltek said. “(Prokofiev) is very technically demanding music, for performers — and sometimes listeners … It’s not sentimental. It’s modernist; it’s very technical. It’s creating beauty out of the clash between beauty and ugly.”

“The Planets” takes a similar tack, juxtaposing loud and soft movements. And while Prokofiev’s aim was to highlight the piano in dialogue with the symphony, Holst’s focus was the discovery of unique sounds that could represent the emptiness, magnitude, or expanse of space. To this end, the composer often employed what Zoltek called “unusual combinations” of instruments and timing. The symphony for “The Planets” includes four flutes, including a base flute; two kinds of tubas, including a tenor; and clarinets of different sizes. The resulting sound, novel and innovative, has since inspired nearly every composer setting space to a soundtrack.

“It’s been very influential on composers (in the science fiction genre) like John Williams,” Zoltek said. “It had a pretty direct influence on the Star Wars Theme, and you can also hear some musical themes reminiscent of Harry Potter … All that musical writing can be traced back.”

The first movement, for example, Mars, the Bringer of War, “could easily transfer, a century later, to a Star Wars battleground,” Zoltek said. This piece “keeps building and building, and gets really tremendous,” he continued, almost like “an extraterrestrial march.” Holst wrote this movement in quintuple meter, another “unusual thing to do,” Zoltek said, which “creates a strange mechanistic sound.”

As became a trend in the dawn of the 20th century, composers began writing for very large symphonies, creating “large expressions,” Zoltek said, and “The Planets” is a prime example. Some of the movements use the size of the symphony to create intense and epic music — Zoltek calls those, including Mars, “heavy metal for orchestra, very loud and powerful.” Even so, others shift gears entirely.

“Mars; Jupiter, (the Bringer of Jollity); and Uranus, (the Magician), they’re powerful, more rhythmic, dynamic,” Zoltek said. “The others are more gossamer, mystical, transparent, and softer, with more interesting use of the orchestra.”

Those include Venus, the Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age; and Neptune, the Mystic. Moments of Neptune, the final movement, sounds uncannily like the Harry Potter soundtrack, and it was one of the first orchestral works to have a fade-out ending. This was achieved by placing a women’s chorus in an adjacent room. They sing a wordless chorus, also on quintuple time, and when they reach the last bar, the door is to be slowly and silently closed. They repeat the final bar, scored for the chorus alone, until the sound disappears into space.

There’s no movement for Pluto — it wasn’t discovered and recognized as a planet until 1930 — nor is there one for Earth. One might attribute some of the suite’s timelessness to this outward-looking focus, to Holst’s gaze at something beyond earthly frivolities.

Holst’s chef d’oeuvre “is groundbreaking in concept,” Zoltek said, in part because “when it was composed, Europe was engaged in the Great War.

“It transcends — there’s elements of universality,” he continued. “There’s all this other stuff out there (in space) … That philosophical context to it, it’s carried humanity in its meaning.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.