The concept of the work is astrological rather than astronomical (which is why Earth is not included): each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche, not the Roman deities. The idea of the work was suggested to Holst by Clifford Bax, who introduced him to astrology when the two were part of a small group of English artists holidaying in Majorca in the spring of 1913; Holst became quite a devotee of the subject, and would cast his friends' horoscopes for fun. Holst also used Alan Leo's book What is a Horoscope? as a springboard for his own ideas, as well as for the subtitles (e.g., "The Bringer of...") for the movements.
When composing The Planets Holst initially scored the work for piano duet, except for Neptune, which was scored for a single organ, as Holst believed that the sound of the piano was too percussive for a world as mysterious and distant as Neptune. Holst then scored the suite for a large orchestra, in which form it became enormously popular. Holst's use of orchestration was very imaginative and colourful, showing the influence of such contemporary composers as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, as well as such late Russian romantics as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. Its novel sonorities helped make the work an immediate success with audiences at home and abroad. Although The Planets remains Holst's most popular work, the composer himself did not count it among his best creations and later in life complained that its popularity had completely surpassed his other works. He was, however, partial to his own favourite movement, Saturn.
The orchestral premiere of The Planets suite, conducted at Holst's request by Adrian Boult, was held at short notice on 29 September 1918, during the last weeks of World War I, in the Queen's Hall with the financial support of Holst's friend and fellow composer H. Balfour Gardiner. It was hastily rehearsed; the musicians of the Queen's Hall Orchestra first saw the complicated music only two hours before the performance, and the choir for Neptune was recruited from pupils from St Paul's Girls' School (where Holst taught). It was a comparatively intimate affair, attended by around 250 invited associates, but Holst regarded it as the public premiere, inscribing Boult's copy of the score, "This copy is the property of Adrian Boult who first caused the Planets to shine in public and thereby earned the gratitude of Gustav Holst."
A public concert was given in London under the auspices of the Royal Philharmonic Society on 27 February 1919, conducted by Boult. Five of the seven movements were played in the order Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Uranus, and Jupiter. It was Boult's decision not to play all seven movements at this concert. He felt that when the public were being given a totally new language like that, "half an hour of it was as much as they could take in". The anonymous critic in Hazell's Annual called it "an extraordinarily complex and clever suite". At a Queen's Hall symphony concert on 22 November of that year, Holst conducted Venus, Mercury and Jupiter (this was the first public performance of Venus). There was another incomplete public performance, in Birmingham, on 10 October 1920, with five movements (Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter). It is not clear whether this performance was conducted by Appleby Matthews or the composer.
His daughter Imogen recalled, "He hated incomplete performances of The Planets, though on several occasions he had to agree to conduct three or four movements at Queen's Hall concerts. He particularly disliked having to finish with Jupiter, to make a 'happy ending', for, as he himself said, 'in the real world the end is not happy at all'".
The first complete performance of the suite at a public concert did not occur until 15 November 1920; the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) was conducted by Albert Coates. This was the first time the movement Neptune had been heard in a public performance, all the other movements having been given earlier public airings.
The composer conducted a complete performance for the first time on 13 October 1923, with the Queen's Hall Orchestra at a Promenade Concert. Holst conducted the LSO in two recorded performances of The Planets: the first was an acoustic recording made in sessions between 1922 and 1924 (now available on Pavilion Records' Pearl label); the second was made in 1926, and utilised the then-new electrical recording process (in 2003, this was released on compact disc by IMP and later on Naxos outside the United States). Because of the time constraints of the 78rpm format, the tempi are often much faster than is usually the case today.
The work is scored for a large orchestra consisting of four flutes (third doubling first piccolo and fourth doubling second piccolo and "bass flute in G", actually an alto flute), three oboes (third doubling bass oboe), one English horn, three clarinets in B♭ and A, one bass clarinet in B♭, three bassoons, one contrabassoon; six horns in F, four trumpets in C, two trombones, one bass trombone, one tenor tuba in B♭ (actually a euphonium scored for treble clef), one bass tuba; a percussion section with six timpani (requiring two players), bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone, tubular bells; celesta, pipe organ; 2 harps and strings. In Neptune, two three-part women's choruses (each comprising two sopranos and one alto) located in an adjoining room which is to be screened from the audience are added.
The suite has seven movements, each named after a planet and its corresponding astrological character (see Planets in astrology):
- Mars, the Bringer of War (1914)
- Venus, the Bringer of Peace (1914)
- Mercury, the Winged Messenger (1916)
- Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity (1914)
- Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age (1915)
- Uranus, the Magician (1915)
- Neptune, the Mystic (1915)
Holst's original title, as seen on the handwritten full score, was "Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra". Holst almost certainly attended an early performance of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra in 1914 (the year he wrote Mars, Venus and Jupiter), and owned a score of it, the only Schoenberg score he ever owned. Each movement of Holst's work was originally called only by the second part of each title (I "The Bringer of War", II "The Bringer of Peace" and so on); the present titles were added in time for the first (incomplete) public performance in September 1918, though they were never added to the original score.
A typical performance of all seven movements is about fifty minutes long, though Holst's own electric recording from 1926 is just over forty-two and a half minutes.
One explanation for the suite's structure, presented by Holst scholar Raymond Head, is the ruling of astrological signs of the zodiac by the planets: if the signs are listed along with their ruling planets in the traditional order starting with Aries, ignoring duplication and the luminaries (the Sun and Moon), the order of the movements corresponds. Critic David Hurwitz offers an alternative explanation for the piece's structure: that Jupiter is the centrepoint of the suite and that the movements on either side are in mirror images. Thus Mars involves motion and Neptune is static; Venus is sublime while Uranus is vulgar, and Mercury is light and scherzando while Saturn is heavy and plodding. This hypothesis is lent credence by the fact that the two outer movements, Mars and Neptune, are both written in rather unusual quintuple meter.
Holst suffered neuritis in his right arm, which caused him to seek help from several amanuenses in scoring The Planets. This is clear from the number of different hands apparent in the full score.
Neptune was one of the first pieces of orchestral music to have a fade-out ending, although several composers (including Joseph Haydn in the finale of his Farewell Symphony) had achieved a similar effect by different means. Holst stipulates that the women's choruses are "to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed", and that the final bar (scored for choruses alone) is "to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance". Although commonplace today, the effect bewitched audiences in the era before widespread recorded sound—after the initial 1918 run-through, Holst's daughter Imogen (in addition to watching the charwomen dancing in the aisles during Jupiter) remarked that the ending was "unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women's voices growing fainter and fainter... until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence".
Several attempts have been made, for a variety of reasons, to append further music to Holst's suite, though by far the most common presentation of the music in the concert hall and on record remains Holst's original seven-movement version.
Pluto was discovered in 1930, four years before Holst's death, and was hailed by astronomers as the ninth planet. Holst, however, expressed no interest in writing a movement for the new planet. He had become disillusioned by the popularity of the suite, believing that it took too much attention away from his other works.
In the March 1972 final broadcast of his Young People's Concerts series, conductor Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic through a fairly straight interpretation of the suite, though Bernstein discarded the Saturn movement because he thought the theme of old age was irrelevant to a concert for children. The broadcast concluded with an improvised performance he called "Pluto, the Unpredictable". The 26 March 1972 performance may be viewed on the Kultur DVD set.
In 2000, the Hallé Orchestra commissioned the English composer Colin Matthews, an authority on Holst, to write a new eighth movement, which he called "Pluto, the Renewer". Dedicated to the late Imogen Holst, Gustav Holst's daughter, it was first performed in Manchester on 11 May 2000, with Kent Nagano conducting the Hallé Orchestra. Matthews also changed the ending of Neptune slightly so that movement would lead directly into Pluto.
On 24 August 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined what it means to be a "planet" within the Solar System. This definition excluded Pluto as a planet and added it as a member of the new category "dwarf planet", along with Eris and Ceres.
Following the IAU decision, Kenyon D. Wilson composed a trombone quintet piece titled "Songs of Distant Earth". The title comes from Arthur C. Clarke's novel of the same name. The composition contains five movements, each named after one of the five known dwarf planets, Eris, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Ceres.
In 2006, the Berlin Philharmonic, with Sir Simon Rattle and EMI Classics, commissioned four composers (Kaija Saariaho, Matthias Pintscher, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and Brett Dean) and recorded an additional, four-movement suite based on asteroids in the Solar System. The four movements were:
Piano duet (four hands) – an engraved copy of Holst's own piano duet arrangement was found by John York.
Two pianos (duo) – Holst had originally sketched the work for two pianos, due to a need to compensate for the neuritis in his right arm. His two friends Nora Day, and Vally Lasker had agreed to play for him the two-piano arrangement as he dictated the details of the orchestral score to them. This they wrote down themselves on the two-piano score, and used as a guide when it was time to create the full orchestral score. The two-piano arrangement was published in 1949. Holst's original manuscripts for it are now in the holdings of the Royal College of Music (Mars, Venus, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune), Royal Academy of Music (Mercury) and British Library (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus).
Organ – American harpsichordist and organist Peter Sykes transcribed The Planets for organ.
Ensemble or Chamber Orchestra – English orchestrator George Morton transcribed The Planets for 15-piece ensemble or chamber orchestra.
Moog – Isao Tomita adapted The Planets for a Moog and other synthesizers and electronic devices. The original LP release is very rare, due to legal action from Holst's estate. Patrick Gleeson also recorded an electronic version in 1976 called Beyond The Sun.
Brass band – Stephen Roberts, associate conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, transcribed the entire suite for brass band.
Marching band – the movements Mars, Venus and Jupiter have all been arranged for marching band by Jay Bocook. Paul Murtha also arranged the chorale section of Jupiter for marching band.
Concert band – there are numerous transcriptions of the whole Suite for concert band.
Percussion ensemble – James Ancona arranged Mercury for a percussion ensemble. It consisted of 2 glockenspiels, 2 xylophones, 2 vibraphones, 2 marimbas, 5 timpani, a small suspended cymbal, and 2 triangles.
Drum corps – selections from The Planets were performed by The Cavaliers as part of their 1985 repertoire, and as the entirety of their 1995 feature field show. A similar performance was recorded for CD by Star of Indiana as part of their Brass Theater series.
Jeff Wayne and Rick Wakeman with Kevin Peek did a progressive rock version of the entire suite with added incidental music on an album called "Beyond The Planets" which also contained occasional narration by Patrick Allen.
An arrangement of Mars by progressive-rock trio Emerson, Lake & Powell appeared on their eponymous album (1986) and was played in their live shows and later in 1990 Black Sabbath concerts (also featuring Cozy Powell).
King Crimson performed a rock arrangement of Mars live in 1969. This arrangement was issued on their second LP, In the Wake of Poseidon, although for copyright reasons it was renamed "The Devil's Triangle" and Robert Fripp claimed authorship, with Holst receiving no composer credit.
A third progressive-rock band, Manfred Mann's Earth Band, performed an arrangement of Jupiter with lyrics which they entitled "Joybringer".
Black Metal/Viking Metal band Bathory arranged a section of Jupiter as the melody of the song "Hammerheart", from the album Twilight of the Gods.
The rock group Sands recorded an abridged version of Mars that would dominate the latter half of their 1967 single "Listen to the Sky".
Dave Edmunds' band Love Sculpture included the Mars movement on their 1970 album "Forms and Feelings," though this was only included in the US version of the album due to Holst's family preventing worldwide release of the track.
Progressive rock band Yes quoted a few sections of Jupiter in the song "The Prophet" from their 1970 album "Time and a Word".
Death metal band Nile's track "Ramses Bringer of War" makes sonic and titular reference to Mars.
Death metal band Aeon recorded a version of "Neptune, the Mystic" for their album Aeons Black. Though much shorter than the original it was derived from a select few of the main melodies
Led Zeppelin's guitarist Jimmy Page would incorporate a loose, improvised section based on Mars during live improvised versions of Dazed and Confused from its first incorporation in the song in October 1969 to the song's last performance in May 1975.
British Metal bands: the introduction to Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?", as well as the main riff from "Black Sabbath" and the bridge from "Children of the Grave" by Black Sabbath, are loosely based on Mars. On their 1990 tour promoting the album Tyr parts of Mars are used as playback during Cozy Powell's drum solo. Saxon used parts of Jupiter as a taped intro to their gigs in the late 1980s.
Slovenian martial industrial group Laibach released the album NATO, the title track of which is an electronic/industrial cover of the first movement, "Mars, the Bringer of War".
Japanese singer Ayaka Hirahara released a pop version of Jupiter in December 2003. It went to No. 2 on the Oricon charts and sold nearly a million copies, making it the third-best-selling single in the Japanese popular music market for 2004. It remained on the charts for over three years.
Frank Zappa quoted Jupiter in his song "Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin" on his 1967 album Absolutely Free.
Symphony X incorporated references to Mars in their song "The Divine Wings of Tragedy". They also quoted Uranus in their song "The Odyssey".
Ken Stringfellow quoted Jupiter in his song "Any Love (Cassandra et Lune)" on his 2004 album "Soft Commands".
American multi-instrumentalist, Cailyn Lloyd, included progressive rock arrangements of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune on her 2015 album "Voyager".
Extracts from Mars, Bringer of War were used in the 1950's BBC serials The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II, played in the opening of each episode.
The 2006 PlayStation 2 game Ape Escape 3 features a remixed version of Mars, Bringer of War during one of the final levels on the game.
The video game Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy features Mars as the music for the "Quantum Explosion Dynamo" level.
The Simpsons episode "'Scuse Me While I Miss the Sky" (season 14, ep. 16) features extracts of the beginning of Jupiter due to astronomy being the main subject of the episode.
Another Simpsons episode, "The Regina Monologues", features an extract from Mars in a flashback scene to World War 2.
The game Outpost has an introductory sequence that uses Mars, arranged in MIDI, as background music. The game's CD includes also an orchestral arrangement of the same movement.
A major plot point in the Netflix series The OA is the seeking of a dance known as "the fifth movement." The movement itself is related to the planet Saturn, as Saturn is the 5th movement in "the Planets."
John Williams used the melodies and instrumentation of Mars as the inspiration for his soundtrack for the movie "Star Wars".
- Asteroid 4179: Toutatis (Saariaho)
- Towards Osiris (Pintscher)
- Ceres (Turnage)
- Komarov's Fall (Dean)
Holst adapted the melody of the central section of Jupiter in 1921 to fit the metre of a poem beginning "I Vow to Thee, My Country". As a hymn tune it has the title Thaxted, after the town in Essex where Holst lived for many years, and it has also been used for other hymns, such as "O God beyond all praising". It is by far the best-known melody of the suite.
"I Vow to Thee, My Country" was written between 1908 and 1918 by Sir Cecil Spring Rice and became known as a response to the human cost of World War I. The hymn was first performed in 1925 and quickly became a patriotic anthem. Although Holst had no such patriotic intentions when he originally composed the music, these adaptations have encouraged others to draw upon the score in similar ways throughout the 20th Century.
The melody was also adapted and set to lyrics by Charlie Skarbek and titled 'World In Union'. The song is used as the theme song for the Rugby World Cup and appears in most television coverage and before matches.