Music Composition Commentary

Contributed by Bath Philharmonia music director, Jason Thornton

Mars - the bringer of War


Mars begins with the angular and irregular meter of 5/4 (5 beats per measure). As western listeners we are programmed to be comfortable in 2 or 3 or 4 beats per measure. 5 beats immediately gives the sense of being uneasy and mechanistic.


The first fragment of melody enters with very low bassoons plus contra bassoon and horn. The melody consists of a perfect 5th followed by a half step (semi-tone). It lasts for 20 beats or 4 measures.


Listen out for the crescendo and immediate diminuendo across two measures


The full 1st theme appears passed up through the woodwind families – bassoons – bass clarinetbass oboe and english horn (Cor Anglais) to oboe. It consists of a rising perfect fifth followed by a semitone slide downwards, followed by another perfect 5th rise and another semitone slide downward. A very angular melodic shape.


A Dflat chord over a G pedal. This creates a very unsettling dissonance. In addition the horns are asked to play the notes stopped (the muting of the note with the hand in the bell) and the trumpet with a mute. This creates a snarling and rasping effect


The movement is dominated by an incessant ostinato (repeating pattern) of triplet, two quarters, two eighth’s and a quarter note. Holst’s orchestration (use of instruments) is remarkably novel with emphasis most definitely on the brutal and mechanistic. He uses the combination of unison (all playing the same thing), strings Col Legno (with the wood of the Bow), two harps in their low register, timpani using wooden sticks and a very quiet roll (p) on gong/tam tam.


Listen out for the strings returning to 'naturale' or with the use of the hair of the bow. This makes the combined sound of the string section much louder


The first entry of the tenor tuba, which begins the fanfares in the brass, leading to a major orchestral climax 5 bars later. The tenor tuba is a non-conventional orchestral instrument, more at home in a Brass Band, where it's called a Baritone


First major climax. The opening pedal G of this movement or the Dominant has finally moved to the Tonic of C. On top of the ostinato is a raw and dissonant Dflat major chord played by full woodwind, horns and trumpets


The second theme makes its first appearance. A legato chromatic theme with just one single note articulated staccato. It first appears on trombones and tenor tuba and then passed to horns and trumpets. The ostinato remains in full strings trumpet and timpani


An orchestral climax where the music abruptly begins in Eflat minor. The full orchestral texture is replaced by stabbing quarters in the strings using down-bow retakes (where the string player plays a down bow stroke lifts the bow of the string and plays another down bow stroke). This gives a very brutal and ugly effect


A duet between tenor tuba and trumpets. It is a militaristic fanfare in a call and response manner. This is repeated using fuller orchestral textures in the proceeding bars before returning to the duet between tenor tuba and trumpets with the inclusion of a military drum (snare drum) as if calling each other across the battlefield


The fanfares are accompanied by very fast scurrying chromatic string and woodwind lines underpinned by an Aminor Chord with superimposed dissonances of Fsharp and Gsharp in the horns and trombone. This leads to a massive held chord of the same notes as previous - a huge dissonance! Listen out for the organ - an ultra low pedal G


The music shifts from 5 quarters in a bar to 5 half notes and we hear the second chromatic melodic idea in augmentation (doubling of length) on low strings, bassoons and contra bassoon. The snare drum provides fragments of the original ostinato. The orchestral texture grows and crescendos in a very menacing way


The whole orchestra (Tutti) play the opening ostinato triple fortissimo (as loud as you can)


The trumpets, timpani and side drum hammer out the ostinato incessantly whilst the rest of the orchestra plays the first angular theme


Trombones enter playing the militaristic call and response melody accompanied by the original ostinato in strings, at the heel of the bow (at the bass end of the bow to give the most sound and edge to the notes)


The fanfare is interspersed with the chromatic theme in woodwind all still over the pounding ostinato in strings


Listen out for the entry of the organ on the 4th and 5th beats of the measure


A massive climax in augmented time of 5/2 (5 half notes per bar) of two unrelated perfect 5ths piled on top of each other - C/G with Dflat/Aflat


Music returns to quarter not measures in 3/4 with the return of the scurrying chromatic string and woodwind motif


The final 8 measures are marked Rallentando al Fine (slowing to the end). Holst refers back to the original ostinato and uses fragments pulling everything back to a grinding halt. The final note is an explosive and violent open 5th (C/G) using strings, percussion, brass and bassoons

Venus - the bringer of peace


Marked Adagio (Slow) in Eflat Major (3 flats) with no expression markings


The movement opens with a solo french horn playing a beautifully simply rising melody. Almost exactly the same tune as the opening of the Opera Oberon by Weber


A beautiful answer to the melody in a choir of 4 flutes and 3 oboes moving in contrary motion (flutes going down and oboes going up). The second time this is heard the oboes are replaced by clarinets retaining the original contrary motion


Holst enables the orchestra to glitter and dazzle with the inclusion of two harps, glockenspiel and celeste. A celeste is a very novel addition to the orchestra. It is a keyboard instrument sounding an octave higher than written consisting of small bells hit by tiny mallets. Again at this point we hear a typical Holst idea of moving chromatically altered chords (harps, horns and flutes), over a pedal note. The pedals move downward by half step played by double basses and cello


Main theme returns on solo french horn maintaining the notion of ever present peace and serenity. with the contrary motion answering phrase in flutes and clarinets


An arpeggiated lower string passage leading to an enharmonic cadence of a Dflat 7 chord moving to an Fsharp major chord. If we read the first chord as Csharp major 7 and the second as Fsharp major, this is beautiful perfect cadence, moving into the dazzling brightness of Fsharp


The violin solo is accompanied by a close harmony syncopated oboe choir followed by unison violins playing this second melody


New violin melody for all violins in the orchestra, accompanied by a close harmony syncopated choir of oboes, cor anglais (english horn - a low oboe, clarinets and horn, proceeded by a solo oboe playing the same melody accompanied by a choir of flutes


Solo violin returns accompanied by a syncopated choir of flutes in their low tessitura (range)


A solo oboe takes a new version of the melody dropping a semitone to Fmajor from Fsharp major. This melody superimposed with an earlier melodic fragment concluding with a passionate version played by strings followed by solo cello


Listen out for a version of the original melody several octaves lower in the cellos and double bass reintroducing the original glittering orchestration with the use of 2 harps and celeste, maintaining the idea of chromatically altered chords with pedal notes (in Eflat with a dominant pedal of Bflat)


Strings are muted (a rubber clip is attached to the bridge muffling the sound) with only 4 desks of 1st Violins and 4 desks of 2nd violins accompanying the main theme played by flute. 1st and 2nd violins are in contrary motion


Muted violin theme returns accompanied by a flute choir in Fflat major (enharmonically Emajor) proceeded by a horn and cello solo using the same melodic material


Return to the home key of Eflat major with sparkling orchestration including scalic figures on harps and celeste as well as beautiful arppegiated accompaniment figures in Harp 1, clarinet and flutes followed by violins


Contrary motion in Flutes and Horns colored with the use of harp harmonics (plucked at certain parts of the string - they sound an octave higher than written giving a very pure floating sound). Celeste has the main rhythmic and melodic movement, the rest of the orchestra accompanies very quietly


Harp 2 provides a shimmering tremolo (fast oscillation on the same note). In this case an Eflat and Dsharp. They are played on different strings on the harp and hence can do a rapid oscillation - a classic Holst orchestral coloring effect


Violins are subdivided into 4 separate parts very high in their range producing an ethereal effect as if floating on the final chord. The final chord of eflat is left floating and the celeste adds a final C effectively making it a Cmin seventh, hence the apparent lack of resolution

Mercury - the winged messenger


arked Vivace (very lively) in the compound time signature of 6/8 in Bflat major


The strings are muted and Holst creates a very delicate texture of perpetually mobile eighth notes, passing the motion from one string family and woodwind family member to another, underpinned by short chords in harps


Two bars of 2/4 using sixteenth notes in strings and woodwind, followed by a return to 6/8 followed by 2/4 again. The pulse staying the same but rhythmic ambiguity beginning to be established


Piccolo in 6/8 whilst oboes, celeste, harp 1 and 1st violin in 3/4


Section concludes with 1st violins on a high harmonic (violins simply rest their finger on the string rather than pressing it down, producing a very airy light sound)


1st violins using natural harmonic E play a rhythmic motif, which is completely rhythmically ambiguous between 3/4 and 6/8. This acts as an upper pedal (same as a low pedal - sustaining harmonic direction)


Rhythmic motif transferred to Glockenspiel


Rhythmic accompaniment presented solidly in 2/4 with melody on solo violin in 6/8, proceeded by solo oboe, flute and celeste. The celeste is accompanied by just one desk (two players) per 1st Violins 2nd violins and violas


2nd violins begin the building of the orchestral texture followed by 1st violins, clarinets, flutes and trumpets all accompanied with chords in brass and arpeggiation in harps in Cmajor


A fermata (pause) on a low Bflat and F followed by one bar return to the opening rhythmic idea and another fermata bar, followed by a complete return to the opening material - a recapitulation


The next section is full of rhythmic ambiguity in which the original idea is tossed around the orchestra in combinations of 6/8, 3/4 and 2/4. Particularly listen out for the celeste and piccolo duet in 6/8 accompanied by strings, harp and woodwind in 3/4


Strings in rhythmic unison played pianissimo in Dmajor with a weirdly meandering melodic profile where the material goes one way then the next


Woodwinds join, dropping the tonality by half a step to Dflat major


A descending phrase in flutes and clarinets phrased in 4 notes rather than the previous 3 creating yet more rhythmic ambiguity


Strings in rhythmic unison make a hushed return but in a more harmonically ambiguous way, using a variety of chromatic notes. With the joining of the woodwind this leads to a very brief orchestral climax on a single eighth note of Emajor


The ambiguous rhythmic motif returns on timpani on the apparent dominant (B), with interjections by celeste and woodwind and the original melody played by piccolo and solo violin


A chromatic ascent through the range of the woodwind family in 2/4 concluding on a very high E harmonic (4 octaves above middle 'c') played by 1st violins with further interjections from celeste, strings, harp contra bassoon and double bass


The penultimate bar is a held close harmony Emajor Chord played by 3 bassoons proceeded by a very delicate eighth note full stop in woodwind, strings and harp

Jupiter - the bringer of jollity


Marked Allegro Giocoso (joyfully lively) in Cmajor in 2/4


Opening texture is formed out of four three-note patterns superimposed over one another played by 1st and 2nd violins


The first theme is a highly syncopated jaunty melody played by 6 horns cellos and violas in unison followed by an orchestral crescendo using the previous three note patterns


The main theme is re-stated using a unique combination of instruments. The melody is played completely by a double set of timpani. In order to play all the melody's notes Holst has to spread the tune across two sets of timpani. In addition Holst uses double basses, tuba, tenor tuba, and bassoons


The second melody with its fanfare qualities is played by 4 unison french horns followed by another highly syncopated answering phrase played by strings, clarinets and bassoons. The following section is an inter-play of theme two and the opening three note texture played by 3 flutes and piccolo


The third theme is another highly jaunty melody played by strings and horns in unison accompanied by a traditional umm-pah pattern in double basses, tuba and trombones


The third themes second quotation uses full woodwind with a sprinkling of glockenspiel


A return to first theme in closed three part harmony in violins and violas, interspersed with the three note opening texture and theme 2 (fanfares)


First quotation of the 4th theme played by french horns in unison in which Holst uses a waltz as his medium for Jollity - in 3/4, followed by strings and woodwind reiterating the melody


The waltz theme is played by trumpets in octaves accompanied by arpeggiated woodwind lines and the first appearance of a tambourine


The waltz gathers tempo through a stringendo (meaning to get quicker), and Holst combines the 4th melody with the syncopated 1st melody played by trombones


The waltz reaches a Fsharp major climax followed by a fanfare from brass using the rhythm of the first theme followed by timpani using a fragment from the same source in 2/4


The fanfare second theme is accompanied by a novel and exceptionally rapid pizzicato (plucking of the string) in violas and cellos


Fifth Theme - in Eflat major, reminiscent of an English Hymn tune - used later for 'I vow to thee my Country'; perhaps more in the style of Edward Elgar?


Return to the fanfare second theme played by cor anglais accompanied by rapidly repeated two note patterns in first and second violins, followed by upper strings tremolando (rapid movement of the bow at the point on one note)


Return to first theme on oboe in Amajor


An abrupt return to the opening theme played fortissimo


Listen out for the comma or luftpause before the return of the third theme (general pause on the upbeat)


Return of the waltz theme in Dflat major in 3/4


Return of the English Hymn Fifth theme in all lower instruments accompanied by ascending and descending scales in harp and woodwind in the key of Bmajor. Upper strings play arpeggiated ten notes to a quarter. The section concludes with a rising chromatic scale in strings and lower wind


Presto (very fast) tempo using the original three note texture in upper strings and wind with final quotation of a rhythmic fragment from the opening theme played by trombones and double timpani


Listen out for the final chord (Cmajor) - it's the only note for Bass Drum in the movement

Saturn - the bringer of old age


Marked Adagio (Very Slow) with 4 beats per measure with no expression markings


The opening begins on the second quarter with a unique combination of 2 flutes, bass flute and low harp harmonics giving a very pale color to the sound. The rhythmic pattern in syncopated with chords sounding on the second and fourth beats of every measure. The tonality is ambiguous with no really defined key centre


Opening melody played by the double bass section three octaves lower than the accompaniment


This opening melody is now played by the bass oboe. This is a very rare and novel inclusion within the orchestra. In Germanic music it is known as a Heckelphone, an instrument loved by Richard Strauss


The beginning of the trombone close harmony choral as a type of cortege accompanied by pizzicato lower strings in Emajor


Cortege continues with accompaniment on beats 2 and 4 with timpani, harps and lower strings pizzicato. A chorus of flutes and bass flute on the beat plays the main theme


The orchestral textures thicken until the pulse doubles (animato) and the motion of the music is syncopated across the quarter and eighth notes. This is the first time that tubular bells are used in the piece as an offbeat peel. The tempo oscillates between this new tempo and the original tempo with terrifying effect


The music returns to being ambiguous and the positioning of the pulses becomes vague resulting in the inaudibility of the bar lines and sense of floating


The main theme is played by a solo double bass and appears to float as the bar lines have in-effect vanished due to the syncopated accompaniment in harp harmonics


The main theme is played by bass clarinet and bassoons accompanied by a choir of syncopated flutes and harp


The main theme is played pp (pianissimo) by unison strings accompanied by an overlaying of textures including 16th notes by harps a lattice work of french horn entries, arrpegiated flutes and tubular bells


Main theme transferred to trombones


Main theme given back to unison strings (bar double basses) raised one octave


The music becomes more static and the harmonic rhythm slows even further. Holst includes very low pedals from the very limits of the range of the organ. Movement ends with an endless sustained Cmajor chord in upper strings

Uranus - the magician


Marked Allegro in 6/4 divided into dotted half beat notes in Cmajor


The opening theme is presented as a series of 4 seemingly unrelated held notes or Fermatas (pauses) G - Eflat - A - B. This is answered by the same pitches in diminution played by tenor tuba and tuba. This is followed by further rhythmic diminution of the theme played by timpani


The dance begins in a gnarly way using solo bassoons, in a very similar manner to Dukas in The Sorcerers Apprentice. The orchestral textures build and thicken with the inclusion of more and more instrumental families


Holst increases tension by increasing the density of notes per half measure from 3 to 4 - increasing speed without the alteration of pulse


Holst uses rhythmic ambiguity with 6/4 in trumpets and 3/2 in tubas


Use of rhythmic ambiguity with strings in 3/2 and woodwind in 6/4


Theme 2 is presented by unison strings and horns accompanied by woodwind and lower strings with single notes on beats 3 and 6


Return of the main theme played by bassoon and bass clarinet with a rhythmic diminution for timpani and further rhythmic augmentation for tuba


Main theme set in 3/2 as apposed to 6/4 played by timpani and tuba followed by the theme played very quickly in eighth notes by piccolo, flute and clarinet concluding with the original theme in the original note lengths


The dance starts again with a complex accompaniment played by bass woodwind instruments, timpani, 2 harps and lower strings


Theme 3 is first heard by tenor tuba and tuba. The phrases are extended to include 9/4 bars concluding with the opening theme in diminution on timpani


Theme 3 played by trumpets using straight quarter note rhythms with woodwind interjections of theme one in eighth notes


Huge orchestral rallentando (slowing down) leading to a massive strike on the bass drum and cymbal and the return of theme 3 with extended phrases in 9/4 with main theme in diminution


Final rallentando with a glissando (rapid ascending scale with the hand drawn across the manual), on the organ along the full length of the manual


Homophonic string chords using just 2 desks of strings with the main theme played by 1st harp using harmonics


Timpani play the main theme in continuing rhythmic diminution until the main theme returns in half notes in strings, brass percussion and woodwind


Full orchestral dissonance using a bi-tonal chord of Fmajor and Cminor with a pedal E


Final fragment of the main theme played by 1st Harp with harmonics and two final ambiguous chords of open fifths

Neptune - the mystic


Andante in 5/4 (3 beats followed by 2), with no expression markings


Opening melody is harmonically ambiguous and given to a solo flute ghosted by bass flute a sixth below


Tremolo in 1st & 2nd Harp on the same chord written enharmonically (Gsharp minor/Aflat minor). The chords are played on different strings so can be oscillated from one to another


Strings enter muted (Con Sordino) with celeste chords and the opening melodic material is converted into accompanying texture


Composite held chords of Emin/Emajor in trumpets and Trombones with arpeggiated textures in strings and harps


Trills and tremolos in strings with scalic passages in celeste. From this point melodic shape disappears and is replaced by pure texture and slow moving harmony.


Sul Ponticello tremolando in strings (the bow played close to the bridge producing a more scratchy harsh texture), followed by composite chords in brass accompanying florid complex textures in celeste, harps and upper strings


Pianissimo Bass Drum stroke with composite chords in wind colored by sul ponticello in strings and the entry of the celeste in quintiplets starting at various points in the bar leading to the listener not knowing where the measures start and finish


Harps glissando in contrary motion underpinned by a composite chord of Emajor/min


The off-stage wordless choir enter for the first time a held top G accompanying the first truly melodic idea since the opening of the movement played by solo clarinet, followed by 1st Violins without their mutes


The choir of female voices breaks into six parts of weaving wordless counterpoint in Emajor accompanied very sparsely by harp harmonics and very low and quiet flute chords


The orchestra comes to the fore using virtuosic complex textures of scalic and arpeggiated patterns in harps, celeste and strings, with composite chords in woodwind and brass


The choir re-enter in a call and response sequence gently and beautifully accompanied by glissandi in harps and an upper pedal (B) on 1st Violins


The work concludes with voices repeating two chords which become quieter and quieter