The Planets

Program Notes

Evocative music—both pictorial and metaphysical—makes up this weekend’s concerts. From Debussy’s luxurious Prélude to Escher’s affecting WWII memorial to Holst’s brilliantly orchestrated suite, it is a feast both for the senses and for the spirit.

Prélude à l’Apres-midi d’un faun

Claude Debussy
(Born 22 August 1862, St. Germain-en-Laye, France; Died 25 March 1918, Paris, France)

Composed: 1892-94

First Performance: 22 December 1894; Paris, France

Last MSO Performance: October 2012; Olari Elts, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, percussion (crotale), 2 harps, strings

Approximate Duration: 10 minutes

It’s not an exaggeration to list Claude Debussy among the seminal forces in the history of Western music, particularly regarding his approach to harmony. He scoffed at the age-old notions of consonance vs. dissonance, of prohibitions against parallel chords, and thought the dominant-tonic (V-I) formula was “of use only to stupid children.” He believed that, even in within a tonal framework, music should be fully chromatic and “enriched by other scales.” It is difficult to think of a work that epitomizes the essence of Debussy’s style more than the Prelude.

This quietly revolutionary composition was inspired by a poem, L’apres-midi d’un faun (The Afternoon of a Faun) by Debussy’s friend Stéphane Mallamé—in turn inspired by a Francois Boucher (1703-1770) Rococo-style painting. The poetry describes the reverie of a flute-playing faun—half man, half goat—of seducing two sleeping nymphs. Though not intended as a literal depiction of Mallarmé’s lines, the solo flute’s recurring melody symbolizes the faun.

Debussy’s voluptuous approach to melody, harmony, and orchestration are on full display here. His interest in non-Western scales and tone colors is evident in the use of whole-tone scales and in instrumentation that evokes the sounds of the Indonesian gamelan. Relatively small by the standards of its time, the orchestra all but omits brass and percussion, using only crotales and four horns. Debussy assigns important material to two harps and requires subtle shading from the strings—including con sordino (with mutes) sul tasto (playing on the fingerboard), and pizzicato (plucking the strings). In short, the French master elicited an extraordinary palette of color from the orchestra, and at the same time utilized an unprecedented musical syntax. Both would prove to be important influences on composers in the 20th century. As Pierre Boulez cogently observed, “The flute of the Faun brought new breath to the art of music... the reservoir of youth in that score defies depletion and exhaustion.”

Recommended Recording: Pierre Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)


Musique pour l’esprit en deuill

Rudolf Escher
(Born 8 January 1912, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Died 17 March 1980, De Koog, Netherlands)

Composed: 1941-43

First Performance: 1947; Amsterdam, Netherlands

Last MSO Performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: 3 flutes ( 2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, 2 cymbals, gong, 2 snare drum, tam tam, tenor drum, xylophone) 2 harps, piano, strings

Approximate Duration: 19 minutes

The son of a geologist/mineralogist, Rudolph Escher was born in Amsterdam and received his advanced musical training in Rotterdam (1931-37). The piano was his major instrument, but he also studied composition with Willem Pijper (1894-1947), one of the most important Dutch composers of the first half of the 20th century. Escher was also a gifted poet, painter, and writer.

When Rotterdam was bombed by the Nazis on 14 May 1940, Escher lost his house and all his possessions, including the manuscripts of his music. With the occupation of Holland, he and his wife went into hiding, moving from one place to another; unlike many of their friends, they were able to avoid arrest. In these harrowing conditions, he composed Musique pour l’esprit en deuill (Music for the Spirit in Mourning) between 1941 and 1943. Soon after WWII, he was the music critic for the journal De Groene Amsterdammer, and the 1947 premiere of Musique pour l’esprit en deuill won him the Amsterdam City Prize. He later held faculty positions in Amsterdam and Utrecht, and was a noted authority on the music of Debussy and Ravel. Though he worked with Pierre Boulez for a time, he had no great interest in atonal music, preferring what he called a “broadened tonality.”

For Musique pour l’esprit en deuill, Escher employed a huge orchestra to embody the weight of persecution felt by the suffering victims of fascism. The thick instrumental textures and ear-splitting musical climaxes are entirely appropriate to the subject at hand. The work follows the traditional outline of exposition-development-recapitulation-coda. The first themes emanate from the primordial opening; once the exposition has reached its high point, the development begins with a desolate landscape, punctuated by chords from the piano. An ominous march is soon heard, conjuring images of goose-stepping soldiers. This builds to a thundering apogee for the full orchestra. When the hysteria subsides, the opening music is heard again. Is the final message here one of hope or one of resignation? The composer leaves that for the listener to decide.

Recommended Recording: Riccardo Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (NM Classics)


The Planets, Op. 32

Gustav Holst
(Born 21 September 1874, Cheltenham, England; Died 25 May 1934, London, England)

Composed: 1914-16

First Performance: 28 September 1918; London, England

Last MSO Performance: November 2011; Lawrence Renes, conductor

Instrumentation: 4 flutes ( 3rd doubling piccolo, 4th doubling alto flute and piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling BO), English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, TT, 2 timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, gong, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, celeste, organ, strings

Approximate Duration: 51 minutes

These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle of each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it is used in a broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also the more ceremonial kind of rejoicing associated with religious or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment. Mercury is the symbol of mind.

–Gustav Holst

The English composer Gustav Holst is best known for his seven-movement suite The Planets. That such should be the case was a source of great consternation to him—much like Bolerò for Ravel or the piano prelude in C-sharp minor for Rachmaninoff. With other fine orchestral music, several operas, chamber music, songs, and a plethora of sublime choral music in his catalogue, the composer never thought it his best work; he was flummoxed by the sensation it caused. Regarding success, he stated, “It made me realize the truth of ‘Woe to you when all men speak well of you.’”

Born into a musical household—his father was a pianist and organist, his mother a pianist and singer—Gustavus Theodore von Holst’s family tree had its roots in Scandinavia, Russia, and Germany. (He anglicized his name in the course of WWI.) As a child, he took piano lessons and began writing music while still in grammar school. In his late teens, he entered the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied composition with the eminent Charles Villiers Stanford. At the RCM, he met fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams. The two immediately became fast friends and began the lifelong habit of playing their newest works-in-progress to each other.

Throughout his adult life, Holst was a teacher—and an influential one. That profession took up most of his time, allowing him to compose only on weekends and in August, when he worked undisturbed in his soundproof music room at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith. (Appointed director or music there in 1905, it was the only teaching post he kept to the end of his life.) Often lecturing in evening institutes as well, he was forced to save up his compositional ideas until the end of each week. That’s why it took him two years (1914-16) to write The Planets. (Bad eyesight and neuritis in his right arm had kept him from war service.)

As Holst makes clear in the quote above, offered in connection with the work’s first performance, The Planets was conceived with an astrological, rather than astronomical, mindset. Holst was first introduced to astrology in 1913 by Clifford Bax, brother of composer Arnold Bax, while the two were on a tour of Spain. Not long afterward, he wrote to a friend, “Recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.” Thus, their contrasting personalities gave rise to a work unlike anything he had ever composed.

The first performance was for an invited audience of a few hundred people; Sir Adrian Boult led the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra. Many thought Mars was a depiction of the war still being fought, when in fact it was composed prior to August 1914. The end of Neptune—with its offstage women’s chorus fading into silent infinity—caused the biggest commotion, but Holst’s own favorite was always Saturn. One hundred years later, the piece never fails to please. His daughter and biographer Imogen Holst (1907-84) summed it up best: “During the many years since it was written, The Planets has suffered from being quoted in snippets as background music, but in spite of all unwanted associations it has survived as a masterpiece, owing to the strength of Holst’s invention.”

Recommended Recording: Sir Adrian Boult; London Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI Classics)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.