The Planets, Op. 32

by Gustav Holst

The Planets, Op. 32 is a seven-movement orchestral suite by the English composer Gustav Holst. The symphony was written between 1914 and 1916 and has been widely performed ever since its premiere in 1918.

Holst was inspired by astrology. Thus, each movement conveys ideas and emotions, ranging from aggression to joy, associated with the astrological characters corresponding to each planet.

This article is visualizes each of the seven movements based on Spotify data from the recording by the Berlin Philharmonic. My analysis is based on Wikipedia, Weebly, and my own experiences playing the suite in an orchestra.

Drawn by Sarina Chen.


Mars: The Bringer of War

♂ Mars is the god of war and bloodshed.

He is associated with aggression, confrontation, energy, strength, ambition and impulsiveness. Mars governs sports and physical competitions.

Holst conveys aggression, fear, destruction in Mars. The music makes strong statements that glorify brass, having tubas, trombones, horns, and trumpets carry the melody. The ending unleashes a long and deep fortississimo.

Mars carries a consistent 5-beat march throughout the piece. The majority of this movement is played in 5/4 time.

The theme of Mars contains triads moving stepwise. The melody uses dissonance for a chaotic effect and almost never follows mode noted by the key signature and is written with many accidentals.


Venus: The Bringer of Peace

♀ Venus is the goddess of love and beauty.

She is associated with harmony, beauty, refinement, affections, and love. Venus governs romantic relationships, unity and social life.

Venus creates a space for life, serenity and beauty after the destruction from Mars. Woodwind and string solos give contrast to the aggressive low brass from the prior movement.

Venus enters with a horn solo followed by woodwinds, setting a peaceful and steady atmosphere. This composition alludes to Venus's role of unifying and making peace.


Mercury: The Winged Messenger

☿ Mercury is the messenger of the gods.

He represents communication, mentality, reasoning and adaptability. Mercury governs education, short travels, information and dexterity.

Similar to Mercury's swiftness, the third movement is the fastest and shortest in duration. There are a various stepwise melodies, such as scales, thirds or other small jumps.

The music is very light and playful. Many of the fast passages are played in staccato or piano. The ending is played very quietly with bells as if the messenger is leaving to his next destination.


Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity

♃ Jupiter is the ruler of the gods, their guardian and protector.

He is associated with gambling, happiness, prosperity and miracles. Jupiter governs long travels, wealth, higher education and the law.

Jupiter has independent themes that vary in tempo and instrumentation. It invokes warmth and greatness, making Jupiter fit for the title of king.

The offbeat rhythm starts the piece to differentiate the structure and flow of Mercury. There are different instrumental features that make Jupiter feel conversational and abundant.

There is a warm mellow section in the music in 3/4 time that has a grand tune. Holst later used this melody for the British patriotic hymn "I vow to thee my country."


Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age

♄ Saturn is the leader of the titans and father of civilizations.

He is associated with ethics, achievements, career, authority, conformity and stability. Saturn governs balance, reality and time.

As the longest piece, Saturn is mysterious and dynamic. Unlike the previous movements, it changes in mood and style throughout the music.

Saturn starts steadily and quietly. There are several loud points throughout the piece. The middle has a quick crescendo into the loudest peak, creating a sense of chaos followed by another period of stability.

Saturn uses tritones in augmented fourths or diminished fifths that give it a sense of hollowness and eeriness, but the piece ends with resolving, full chords.


Uranus: The Magician

♅ Uranus is the personification of the sky.

He is associated with ingenuity, unconventionality, individuality, discoveries and democracy. Uranus governs societies and progress.

Uranus brings a new liberated feeling after leaving the seriousness atmosphere of Saturn. The style is confident, energetic, and unique.

The composition for Saturn shows originality. It has a very pompous and occassionally impulsive style. Like a sorcerer, the musical ideas seem crafty.

At the final minute, the music feels like a chant, growing louder and then fading away.


Neptune: The Mystic

♆ Neptune is the god of sea.

He is associated with the collective consciousness and vagueness encountered while discovering universal truths. Neptune governs idealism.

Neptune's tune is abstract. Instead of themes, there are fragments of melodies and harmonies. The legato playing creates a feeling of the infinite, outer space.

The piece discreetly features a six-part double chorus of wordless women’s voices. The singers are hidden in an adjacent room, and as their voices soften the door is slowly closed, creating silence at the very end.

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This is Part I of my personal project done in May 2021 and completely done with Python, D3.js, Canvas, and Scrollama. Check out my GitHub here.

Come back for Part II later this year. :)