Friday, September 21, 2007

The Planets

The other day I was stuck in a lot of traffic so I decided to sort through the CDs in my glove compartment and I was thrilled to find my copy of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” I thought I lost it. I’m listening to it right now.

Last Saturday night my mom and I went to the Utah Symphony’s first concert of the season where they performed “The Planets.” Abravanel Hall was packed. I remember the first time I heard this piece was in Abravanel Hall, maybe…fifteen years ago. The last time I heard “The Planets” performed was back in 2003 in London. That time it was a little different because some guy named Colin Matthews, feeling bad for Pluto, was commissioned to write a piece for the ninth planet (Holst wrote these before Pluto was deemed a planet in 1930). My mother and I both agree it was quite presumptuous of Holst to write an entire work for the planets in our solar system, thinking no more planets would be discovered. However, last year Pluto was stripped of its planet status and demoted to a star. So maybe Holst knew something we didn’t.

It kind of makes me wonder if that Pluto movement will ever be performed again. Probably not. I don’t remember it being that great anyway. Who does this guy think he is amending Gustav Holst’s work? Well, it was a commission.

Moving on…Besides the awe and wonder outer space embodies, I think one of the reasons I love “The Planets” is because it’s program music (as opposed to concert music). Definition of term: music intended to evoke extra-musical ideas, creating mood, imagery, or a scene. That would explain my love for film music as well.

I have so many thoughts on “The Planets” I thought I would write my own program notes. My Grandpa Durham used to write the program notes for the Utah Symphony (or he wrote the reviews in the paper, I’m not sure) I don’t know a lot when it comes to writing about music, but it’s just my blog, so I’m not worried about people taking what I have to say seriously. It’s not like I’m adding a planet to the work. However I do take issue with the order in which these pieces were performed:

MARS: the Bringer of War

Anyone who passed the second grade knows the pneumonic device that helps you remember the order in which the planets are beginning with Mercury, the nearest to the sun. “My very energetic mother just served us nine pizzas” (again, to be current, we have to scratch Pluto, so maybe “mother just served us naan” or something).

All the other planets are performed in order, why did Holst switch Mars and Mercury? I asked my mom this question and she said “Because you have to start off with a BANG!” as if it didn’t bother her at all. Later that night we met up with Barlow Bradford, and I asked him the same question and he had the same answer (which I thought was weird).

Well, it does start out with a BANG. In fact, it’s kind of terrifying. The drums pound as if they’re going to come and get you, yet you want to stay and find out what will happen.

VENUS: the Bringer of Peace

After Mars shoots you with a healthy dose of adrenaline, Venus slows your heart rate back down with predictable patterns and a heart-wrenching violin solo that comes and goes. There’s something nostalgic about this movement. It reminds me a little of golden-age film and tv music, so maybe some film composers mimicked this style a bit.

MERCURY: the Winged Messenger

Again, I don’t know why this couldn’t have begun with Mercury. It’s exciting enough. I don’t know why I’m so hung up on things having a practical order. Holst really did a great job of communicating a sense of flight in this piece (Mercury is the winged messenger, after all). My mom’s favorite part is about 1:40 into the piece after there’s all this build up and then the strings play a downward minor scale (if I were smarter I could tell you what key it was in). It sounds like Mercury was shot from a slingshot and then it happily soars off.

JUPITER: the Bringer of Jollity

Even though both my mom and I have favorite parts from different planets, Jupiter is our favorite one. It’s just so happy and boisterous, and you get a sense of the expansiveness of Jupiter.

At parts the tempo speeds up and you get excited, but then the symbols sound and the piece slows down a little. Holst wrote a beautiful theme for Jupiter that was later cast as a patriotic song for England. Random fact from my mom: this was Princess Diana’s favorite hymn. When the hymn began, Mom placed her hand over her heart. I noted she didn’t think to do that at the beginning of the concert when Keith Lockhart led the orchestra and audience in “The Star Spangled Banner.” She wishes she were British.

SATURN: the Bringer of Old Age

Apparently this one is Holst’s favorite. But it’s so sad! There’s this ticking of the clock and a tolling of the bell that sounds so ominous. It kind of sounds like some huge entity is going to come swallow you whole. And I don’t understand why Saturn brings old age.

But my favorite part of the whole work is in the last minute of Saturn. It’s so simple; it’s in the last minute after you feel like you’ve been floating in a trance for awhile. Suddenly the strings come in quietly and slowly play four notes of a major scale, and then when they repeat it, the scale changes to a minor key with the fourth note. I don’t know how something so small – something that lasts only a few seconds can make me feel so good, but it does. I’ve just been playing that part over and over again on my iTunes.

URANUS: the Magician

This one kind of sounds like an army of munchkins coming after me. I realize that's a ridiculous description, but that's the imagery I get. It starts out with trumpets and trombones warning you that something is coming and then they march toward you and then they run toward you. Eventually, it’s not so scary. I think you realize the magician is more crazy than dangerous. It slows down and then it starts to sound like the Nutrcracker for a split second. It might be the flutes or the triangles, or the whole “magical” feel. I need to be more proficient in musicology to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

My favorite part of this piece was watching Keith Lockhart. He was more animated in this piece than he was in Jupiter. His knees would come up, his arms would flail, but the best part was when he jumped up on both feet and landed in third position.

NEPTUNE: the Mystic

This whole movement is so quiet you barely notice it’s there. It’s beautiful and ethereal but doesn’t have a melody really until the very end when the womens chorus comes in. By the way, the chorus is offstage, so if you’ve never heard this before, it kind of confuses you. My favorite part was when the old man sitting behind me leaned over to his wife and said not-so-softy, “Where’s the singing coming from??” The singing continues with the orchestra until the instruments fade away and the voices are left singing until they eventually fade away. At this point, you kind of feel like you’ve floated so far off into outer space that you’ll never get back.

Yeah, Earth doesn’t get a movement. I guess we’re all supposed to know what Earth sounds like.

Wow. I just spent a lot of time writing this. It’s probably the most enjoyable thing I’ll do all day (I have a bad attitude about work lately). Time to go grocery shopping for Gallery Stroll. If you’re around tonight, you should stop by!


Ilene said...

Okay, I couldn't even tell you when chords were switched from a major to a minor so don't go beating yourself for not knowing exactly what key it was in.

This was a fun Laura post! I loved your descriptions and I, too, would be annoyed with the Mars and Mercury mix up. Poor Mercury. You just can't help feeling a bit sad for the guy.

ThomCarter said...

That is a very astute series of observations of this great piece of art.

Well done.

charlotta-love said...

Last night at institute we were talking about how large the universe really is - how the number of planets is more than all the sand on all the beaches. My first thought was, "wow, Holst sure left a lot out."

Nice post and great music!