Week Thirty: The Planets

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever really quite understood classical music. I’m part of that small minority who only listen to Radio 3 for the spoken word output (in particular, the fantastic Night Waves). It’s not like death metal or happy hardcore music, not something that makes me race for the off switch to get rid of this awful noise. Rather, for the most part, it ends up sounding to me like background music, I don’t really connect with it.

So this week has been a bit of a chance to test out whether that is because me and classical music are just like ships that pass in the night, or whether the problem is instead that I’ve just never given any particular piece of classical music the time it needs to grow on me. To be honest, while I did go through a phase of putting on Mozart’s string pieces as background when I was working, there are probably very few classical works I’ve listened to all the way through more than a couple of times.

It begins with the threatening, and indeed appropriately martial sounding Mars: the Bringer of War. Listening to this piece, I’m struck both by the thought that, given the time it was composed, it surely must be a reflection of the horrors of the First World War and by the possibly rather musically illiterate thought that this must have been at least an indirect influence on the heavy metal music that would follow half a century later. Because, for all that, if I were at a pub quiz and had to answer the question “in what century did Gustav Holtz compose the planets?” I’m not at all sure that I wouldn’t be a couple of hundred years out, this is, in the grand sweep of the history of classical music, actually quite recent. By the time it was first performed in November 1920, three of my grandparents had been born, and, let’s say, the release of the Beatles’ first LP was closer in time to the time this was composed than to the present day. I don’t doubt that someone who knows a great deal more about classical music than I do would be able to tell that there was no way that this had been composed in 1816, but I wouldn’t know.

The mood changes quite abruptly with Venus: the Bringer of Peace. For all that I prefer my classical music low key – with more strings and piano and less bombastic use of brass instruments, this piece just doesn’t really stick in my mind. Mercury: the Winger Messenger works better for me, though I’m afraid this is one of those not infrequent moments when I find myself struggling to find a way of using language to explain why. Jupiter: the Bringer of Jollity definitely sound familiar to me – I’m fairly sure that the piece, or at least the part that begins at around 3m 30s in, has been used on more than one occasion to soundtrack the annual Edinburgh Festival Fireworks Concert. Certainly it sounds like the kind of music that could form the backdrop to lots of pretty explosions in the sky.

Listening to this, I found myself wondering what followed it – where its influence can be heard in today’s music. Was it a dead end? Certainly it’s not easy to hear its influence in the classical music of the second half of the 21st century – the minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. On the other hand, perhaps its legacy is really to be heard in the scores written for big blockbuster films: if Holst had lived fifty years later, perhaps he’d have written the theme music for Star Wars or Jaws. Or perhaps not. Another tenuous connection I’m hearing is between this themed classical music and the orchestrally tinged story-telling of Godspeed You Black Emperor! – although F#A# seemed more interested in soundtracking an imaginary apocalypse than the ‘astrological’ characters of the planets. But maybe these are just the half-formed ideas of someone with little or no idea what he is talking about.

Highlights: Mars, the Bringer of War, Mercury, the Messenger


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