Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity - The most massive of the planets, possessing twelve satellites (one of them larger than the planet Mercury), named for the light‑bringer, the rain‑god, the god of thunderbolts, of the grape and the tasting of the new wine, of oaths, treaties, and contracts, and from whom we take the word “jovial.” “Jupiter,” says Noel Tyl, “symbolizes expansiveness, scope of enthusiasm, knowledge, honor, and opportunity . . . [and] corresponds to fortune, inheritance, bonanza.” Holst gives us an unmistakably English Jupiter. In 1921 Holst took the big tune in the middle and set to it as a unison song with orchestra the words, “I vow to thee, my country.”
Gustav Holst’s father was a piano teacher whose grandfather had once taught the harp to the Imperial Grand Duchesses in Saint Petersburg, and had emigrated to England from Riga. Gustav’s mother, a sweet lady whose jumpy nerves were upset by music, died young, and Gustav and his brother, Emil Gottfried (later a successful actor under the name of Ernest Cossart), were brought up by their Aunt Nina, who had strewn rose petals for Franz Liszt to walk on. Gustav inherited his mother’s overstrung nerves, and later in life he was several times near mental collapse. He was a timid child, so nearsighted that as a grown man he could not, even when wearing spectacles, recognize members of his own family at six yards. His nights alternated between insomnia and nightmares. Much of his life he suffered from neuritis so severe that he had to dictate some of his music, including portions of the densely intricate score of The Planets. He played violin and keyboards as a boy, but the neuritis put a stop to both, and other than occasional conducting, his last activity as a performer was as trombone player in the Scottish Orchestra and with the Carl Rosa Opera Company from 1898 until 1903.
He studied composition at the Royal College of Music, London, with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and it was as a composer and teacher that he really found himself. He taught most of his adult life, at the James Allen and Saint Paul’s schools for girls, at Morley College for Working Men and Women, and briefly in 1932 at Harvard. He kept the association with Saint Paul’s until his death—the alumnae used to identify themselves to him by naming the Bach cantatas they had sung under his direction—and it was there that he worked on The Planets, in the soundproof room of the new music wing opened in 1913, a paradise where he could be undisturbed and indulge in the near‑crematorial indoor temperatures he favored.
There was more to his heaven and earth than what he inherited from his Swedish and English ancestors or what he had learned at the Royal College. In his twenties, he became deeply involved in Indian philosophy and religion, and he taught himself Sanskrit to make his own translations of the Rig Veda. Between 1908 and 1912 he composed four sets of hymns from those ancient books of knowledge, and his most moving achievement is the opera Savitri, based on an incident in the fourth‑century epic Mahabharata.
Sometime after the turn of the century, Holst came into the thrall of astrology. He was reluctant to speak of this, though he admitted that casting horoscopes for his friends was his “pet vice.” The Planets is an astrological work. “As a rule I only study things that suggest music to me,” Holst once wrote, “recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me.”
- Michael Steinberg