If you’re out enjoying the city this weekend (like for instance, at one of the CPO performances of The Planets this Friday and Saturday night!), make sure to check out the full moon. Whether or not you believe in astrology, sighting a distant object that plays our oceans like a musical instrument is likely to inspire awe and wonder. It certainly did for Gustav Holst, the composer of The Planets.

As many writers have programme-noted, Holst was inspired by the astrological significance of the planets, rather than Martian craters or Jupiter’s great red spot. He composed the work from 1914-1916, and so he was also certainly thinking about the Great War, as World War I was then known. While you can delight in the piece as pure cosmic escapism, I think you can also find in it a deep exploration of human nature, combined with a dark and questioning vision of humanity’s future.

Astrology isn’t always held in great respect in our culture. Many cultures have, though, both historically and today. One of the most elaborately worked-out astrological systems is in Hindu culture, which Holst studied extensively, setting several ancient Sanskrit texts. I think his reverence for those teachings probably greatly influenced his decision to make a large symphonic suite based on the Planets, during a time of great global conflict, and the choices he made in writing it.

We can probably all identify with the planetary natures Holst’s planets symbolize – war-like, peaceful; Mercury’s busyness, Jupiter’s jollity; languid old age, magic, mysticism. There may not be much science behind it, but often we can intuitively feel all those natures co-existing and acting within us. Just like the moon, they follow their own cycles, waxing and waning, but never disappearing entirely. Far from letting us succumb to fatalism, an awareness of those forces can give us hope, even in our darkest hours, that there may be larger patterns at work. To me, that hope is what powers Holst’s vision in The Planets, even if he didn’t have access to any amazing Hubble images — and it’s what makes his music so compelling and captivating.

Written by Matt Heller.

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