The feeling of wonder is an important ingredient in human happiness, and the concert hall is one of the best places to experience it. It was certainly on display at the Meyerson Symphony Hall on September 16th as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed The Planets by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) under the baton of Gemma New.
The program featured an interesting mix of old and new. The three compositions in the order of performance were What Keeps Me Awake (2008) by Angelica Negron, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and The Planets (1914-17) by Gustav Holst. Olga Kern was the pianist for the Rachmaninoff, and the Dallas Symphony Chorus directed by Jonathan Ryan sang for the final movement of The Planets.
The Planets were the culmination of the concert for good reason. The Planets have long been adored by classical music lovers, but they have also had a lasting impact in pop culture. Those familiar with the soundtracks of John Williams—memorably featured in the films of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park—will recognize similar themes in The Planets, as Williams was heavily influenced by Holst. I think part of the awe and wonder those movies convey is in fact owed to The Planets.
Holst was inspired by astrology to compose The Planets. Classical astrology recognized seven planets or celestial bodies that charted a different course from the stars: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Later astrologers added Uranus and Neptune, named after the Roman gods, when they were discovered. Holst’s piece uses the original seven but replaces the moon and sun with the later additions. Because each planet is an archetype that encapsulates an aspect of existence, The Planets were meant to lift the mind to the abstract by giving it form. The piece was deliberately intended to inspire awe and wonder.
The most instantly recognizable movement of the piece is Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. Its powerful main theme is the tune to the anthem I Vow to Thee My Country and the hymn O God Beyond All Praising. In classical astrology, Jupiter represents kingship, nobility, grandeur, merrymaking, and celebration.
The movement begins with the strings seemingly taking flight in a short, rapid ostinato (a kind of repetition) immediately calling the mind upward with joyous urgency. They are then joined by the brass which take up the first theme and continue the ascent until they erupt triumphantly in a crescendo. The movement continues with the brass and strings joined by the woodwinds, and they seem to be conversing excitedly. Multiple melodies are introduced, climax in accelerandos and crescendos and give way to new themes. Holst used contrasts in pitch, volume, and speed to create dynamism and forward momentum. The movement is heraldic, with the brass adding to the sense of grandeur.
After about a minute, the movement transitions to a rhythmic dancelike melody announced by the French horns. It is then taken over by the woodwinds. Finally, the horns burst into a stately melody in 6/8 time and this too makes its way through the orchestra. As this fades out, the great moment arrives, the famous anthem. What is it about this anthem that we find so moving?
It speaks of duty, sacrifice, and ultimate victory, but at a cost. The feeling is triumphant, like a coronation march, but it has heartache underlying it. Something about it seems to speak universally as if it represents the human condition itself: trial, obedience, suffering, towards an ultimate redemption which, however, does not erase the hardships we endure. Its universality and grandeur are sublime.
The DSO’s rendering was itself incredibly evocative: triumphant, honorable, grand but also mournful, sad, and heartbreaking. Hearing it in the concert hall, one could feel its full potency and understand why this theme has been used as an anthem and a hymn. One could also see that it affected all the concert-goers in a similar way, thus reminding us of the power of music to forge common experiences.
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, was Holst’s favorite movement of this piece, Saturn representing time, age, cataclysm, and doom. The movement begins with woodwinds slowly keeping time in a one, two, high, low pattern, like the slow ticks of a clock or the labored breathing of an old man. Strings join subtly, then ebb and flow in volume. A lone oboe repeats their tune. Then they join together, deliberate and slow.
Trombones begin a new melody, joined by trumpets, with the strings keeping simple time. They grow slowly but with a powerful, unstoppable force. This is like an army on the distant horizon making its way to war. Like Jupiter, the melody here keeps building, but its destination is to be terrifying.
Indeed, the strings make a dark sound shifting up and down alongside clanging bells and shrill trumpets: the stroke of midnight. The sound instills a sense of terror. The melody introduced during the climax fades as it repeats until a near silence arrives. Then, a soft soothing intermingling of woodwinds, strings, brass, and chimes breath together in and out. The strings swell, now much sweeter than before and hold their note until the end as the rest of the orchestra rises with them and falls away without fanfare. The ending is like a calm after calamity, like the sense of peace that follows a storm, when one can smell the petrichor in the air and hear the quiet dripping of water. One feels a sense of relief and release, like falling asleep or dying. These feelings too contribute to the sense of awe, wonder and gratitude. Again, the orchestra was able masterfully to evoke the sublime.
Those were only two of seven remarkable movements which together left listeners feeling deeply contented and grateful to have witnessed them. For my part, they reminded me how small I am, and privileged to be able to experience something so magnificent. To anyone feeling too caught up in the worries of daily life, I highly recommend taking a trip to the symphony. The wonder and gratitude that it inspires will be rejuvenating.