1917: Holst: The Planets, age 43

Mr. Peabody Says:

Start here: 47:10 Neptune, Mystic – Pisces: This whole video is stunning, but Neptune is often played in about six and a half minutes. This is around 9:30, much slower, and for the first time I was utterly taken in. The atmosphere is incredible and for me better than dozens of other recordings.

Who is Maciej Tarnowski ? I want to hear more from him. He looks like another graduate of Hogwarts. This a wonderful video, and you see so much, the six horns, four trumpets, even a euphonium, my instrument. The camera work is superb. I would take this performance over all others, because of the magical ending.

Maciej Tarnowski

  1. 0:30 Mars, Bringer of War – Aries and Scorpio – C major or C minor, ambiguous – 7:42
  2. 8:12 Venus, Bringer of Peace – Taurus and Libra – ends in Eb major – 9:44
  3. 17:56 Mercury, Winged Messenger – Gemini and Virgo – ends in E major – 4:38
  4. 22: 34 Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity – Sagittarius – starts and ends in C, strong G Mixolydian – 8:47
  5. 31: 21 Saturn, Bringer of Old Age – Capricorn – end in C major – 9:50
  6. 41:11 Uranus, Magician – Aquarius – end in E minor – 5:59
  7. 47:10 Neptune, Mystic – Pisces – 9:28 (End:56:38)


  • 2 piccolos, 4 flutes, bass flute in G, 3 oboes, bass oboe, English horn, 3 clarinets in Bb and A, bass clarinet in Bb, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon
  • 6 horns in F, 4 trumpets in C, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tenor tuba in Bb
    (often played on euphonium), 1 tuba
  • 6 timpani, triangle, side drum, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, gong, bells, glockenspiel, celesta. xylophone
  • 2 harps, organ
  • strings
  • female choir, hidden.

In “Neptune”, two three-part women’s choruses (each comprising two soprano sections and one alto section) are located in an adjoining room which is to be screened from the audience.

The instrumentation is gigantic…

If you compare the orchestra with what Mozart and Beethoven used, you see that in the 1800s things just got ever bigger. It seems that Holst threw in everything but the kitchen sink.


Holst was interested in astrology and even read horoscopes. He had in mind something very astrological, so it’s fun to find out your sun sign and pick your planet. I was born in early October, so my sign is Libra. That makes Venus my planet. You can do the same thing. Find you sign, then figure out which planets is yours.

Each movement of the suite is named after a planet of the Solar System and its corresponding astrological character as defined by Holst. At the time there were only seven “planets” in astrology, where a “planet” was something that seemed to move around the earth. That included included the Sun and Moon, but strangely Holst did not write movements for them. So Leos and Cancers don’t have movements. If you have those signs, you can borrow another planet by calculating you rising sign or Moon sign.

No Pluto…

How strange that Pluto, which was not included at the time because it had not yet been discovered, is no longer considered a planet now. It got demoted to a planetoid, a word so new that my spell-checker does not recognize “planetoid” as a word.

Mars is in five:

Most of it is is in 5/4, but there is also 5/2, and both are unusual time signatures because we do not have five feet. You hear something different, either 3+2 or 2+3.

There is no key signature, which means C major or A minor. But that’s not it. But the reason there is no key signature is that Williams uses just about every major and minor chord, every key, so it’s easier to read and understand without a key.

There are lots of open 5ths, and tritones, and whole tone chords, while the most persistent thing is a low G pedal that just never stops. By the end there is a solid low C, but it is neither major or minor because it has no 3rd. We call it an open 5th. It’s ambiguous.

Venus is more predictable, or is she?

It starts out in 4/4, but the center section is in 3/4. The key is Eb major at the beginning, but it’s really more like Ab major.The middle is in B major, and he changes the key signature from three flats to five sharps. That’s just the start of it. In fact, as is always true of such music, for the most part he would have been better off with no key. He goes to so many places, as far away as Cb major, 7 b’s, and A major, 3 #s. Only at the very end does he settle down into clear Eb major.

Mercury is in just about every key imaginable:

Well, what’s the key? It appears to be in C major or A minor. But the first chords are Bb, E, A in the high winds, and the bassoons are playing different chords, which is poly-tonal. At one point it’s pure Mixolydian, like the key of G but with F natural. But the lower chord keeps changing. Again, that’s just the start. At one point the accompaniment is in 4/8, but the top is in 6/8, a poly rhythm. The actual dominant key, if there is one, is something like E major, and that’s where he ends the piece, but with no key.


Jupiter is in 2/4 time, simple. Only it isn’t, except on paper. What you hear is totally different from what you see, so it’s all an illusion. The middle is in 3/4, more predictable. There is lots of Mixolydian, and it ends that way, looking like C major but always with Bb, b7.


This starts out with all octatonic tones, which is why it is so spooky. This actually goes on for a long time before he settles into a key for a while, 3 #s but with a strong B Dorian feel. Soon he is in Db Dorian, then to C minor with lots of twists. There are no key signatures. He uses so many modes and is just not in a key. At any moment he moves from ANY major OR minor chord to any other. But then he moves toward pentatonic in various keys, settling into C and then ends on a Cmaj7 chord.


It’s a lot like Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In fact, if you want to get a handle on augmented chords and whole tone systems, Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Uranus are fantastic places to start. There are lots of major and minor chords too, because this is basically a boisterous march.

It starts out in a B7b5 chord, a whole tone chord that also leads to augmented chords, and from that he gets his motive, G Eb A with B bass, which is essentially the bass line.

At one point very close to the end it ends on a C major chord, fff, but there is more, ending on the same mysterious motive, G Eb A with E bass. They key is probably C major, since the full chord scale is always G A B Db Eb F G, which forms an unusual dominant G7, but you are left up in the air, with no final chord.


The chorus is off stage, in a room, and at the end the door is supposed to be closed.

There is more of the same. Any major or minor chord goes to any other. Lots of augmented chords. Lots of maj7 chords. Typical is G#m to Am. There is more atmosphere than structure.

Any one who watched Harry Potter should recognize where John Williams got his ideas from, and also Star Wars. Holst was so radical in this piece that his sounds and chord structures are used NOW, in 2021.

It ends in E major, with the most curious notation you can imagine. The chorus has the E major key signature, but there are things like an Eb up high, which shows that Holst absolutely did not understand what he was doing in terms of modern thinking, because the Eb is clearly D#, the ma7 of Emaj7. Lot of things like octatonic. It all looks very strange, but it all works. There are some things here that are eeirly close to Twilight.

Best friend of Vaughn Williams:

He was the best friend of Vaughn William, and both traveled all over the country collecting folk songs. He loved bands, as did his friend Vaughn William, so both wrote exceptional music for bands, today often called wind ensembles.

Famous for more than 100 years – Holst was around age 40:

The Planets has remained one of the most popular musical suites ever written, right to this very moment, and if you listen carefully, each piece could be something written for a movie in 2020.In fact, the similarity to Star Wars and Harry Potter is striking,

Radical music:

In 1916 the world was not yet ready for this music by Holst. It was too revolutionary!

The work was not heard in a complete public performance until some years after it was completed. The first complete public performance was finally given in London by Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra on 15 November 1920.

Sounds like John Williams, another “Williams”:

This music, to my ears remains so fresh and altogether impressive that I’d wager no one hearing it for the first time would not know that it was not something composed by John Williams for Star Wars. Holst was one of the miracle orchestrators who inspired every top of film composer of the 20th and 21st centuries. Holst and Strauss are two composers who wrote film music, before there were even films.

In 1916 the world was not yet ready for this music by Holst. It was too revolutionary!

How strange that Pluto, which was not included at the time because it had not yet been discovered, is no longer considered a planet now. It got demoted to a planetoid, a word so new that my spell-checker does not recognize “planetoid” as a word. I chose this video because you get to see the players, and that is always interesting.

9 thoughts on “1917: Holst: The Planets, age 43

  1. Definitely gravitating towards the sound of the Venus section, (pun intended). It reminds me of the ambient music in star wars. With the quiet calm of the things and the lone ambience of an oboe or a flute. It’s really great.

  2. Popping in a year later, and intend to revisit. I just finished learning about Haydn who, when in London, visited the astronomer who had just discovered “that unfortunately named planet” (narrator had British dry humour) Uranus – so from planet theme to planet them but in a different era.

  3. Wondering how his collections of folk songs helped him create these movementes. Star Wars songwriters must have taken something from The Planets – Jupiter one.

  4. Figured out I was Saturn, I really enjoyed the piece as well as the part of it talking about the god of agriculture, though I’m not he biggest fan on the human limitation idea.

  5. I really love how the composer interpreted the character of the planets and how well he correlated the music to that character and really made it work. Each movement of this song actually reminds me of that specific planet and I love it.

  6. Thank you so much for this. I heard Holst many years ago and it was just “interesting unfamiliar sound”. By breaking it up like this and giving it “personality”, almost like Star Wars themes, it was made more real.

    I especially like the Mercury and Jupiter themes. I am wondering why Jupiter sounds so familiar.

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