Have you heard? is a showcase for the unconventional, unique and inspiring music out there that never seems to get the limelight it deserves
The Planets: Neptune, the Mystic - Gustav Holst (1915)
Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite is undoubtedly his most well-known music ever. Particularly, the themes he wrote for Mars and Jupiter have been played and loved around the world. But there are five other planets he wrote music for, one of which is Neptune, the Mystic. Dreamy and soothing, this is the final piece in the suite, many years before the discovery of Pluto.
So how does an orchestral piece of music written to portray a distant planet as a wizard constitute an unconventional, unique or inspiring piece of music?
Before even beginning to assess the relationship between the music and the subtitle, “the Mystic”, I am going to jump straight to the end of the piece. The music ends with a soft choir repeating the same bar over and over again as it fades into the distance. In today’s modern age this is not unusual, but in a live 1910’s performance the effect was simply astounding. How did he do it? In a stroke of innovation for the modern orchestra, he instructed the choir to be put in a room offstage and the door slowly and quietly shut. Very clever!
Neptune, indeed, is a mystical piece. It is not grand or tense, but sombre and magical. That is what makes it special. It’s about the atmosphere rather than the journey. The instrumentation captures this beautifully. It is light and dream-like, heavily utilising the wind instruments and pitched percussion in drifting scales and unresolved chords. In the second half of the piece a choir appears and begins to add to the atmosphere in the background. There are many small chimes and lonely motifs, reflecting the traditional ‘mystic’ viewpoint. Everything is slow, measured and composed. Transitions between motifs and segments are seamless; there are no blunt announcements. Only there is the humble mystic at the end of the universe, craftily weaving his magic.
The music is a perfect fit for Neptune. The choir gives a sense of distance, while the strings flutter around the mystery of the blue planet. It’s the perfect music to have playing in the background when taking it easy… especially if on a trip to Neptune,
Neptune has been inspirational to me as a piece that showcases how a composer to think outside the box to utilise the orchestra in ways to achieve their desired outcomes. These days we have other ways of fading out an orchestra, but Holst’s solution back in 1915 really challenges me to think about things I can do to my pieces to add difference and uniqueness. It also reminds me that not all pieces need to be grand and ‘show-y’. I appreciate the simple atmospheric and impressionistic music Holst has created. it has character and it has soul. It feels just like a planet.
Happy listening and enjoy!