Hubble Space Telescope: The Skies Beyond Holst's "The Planets"
Gustav Holst spent the years 1914-1916 in the making of his masterpiece, "The Planets." He was aware of astronomy, in a rudimentary way, and certainly knew the solar system to the extent that science knew it, that is to say as a system of eight planets orbiting around the Sun. Pluto was not discovered until after the final double bar had been affixed to Holst's movement depicting "Neptune: The Mystic." Although Holst remained active as a composer well after Clyde Tombaugh proved the existence of a 9th planet, Pluto, he never showed any interest in adding Pluto to his existing score.
There has long been debate as to whether Holst's interest as he composed "The Planets" was in astronomy, or astrology. Well documented was an outing he made to the island of Mallorca in 1913 with his friend and benefactor Balfour Gardiner. They were joined by the brothers, Arnold and Clifford Bax. In a sense, Clifford was the odd man out, for Gardiner, Holst and Arnold Bax were all musicians, whereas Clifford was a writer. Nevertheless, Clifford Bax was deeply interested in astrology, and he tried, during that vacation to Mallorca, to convince the others to share his passion. Gardiner rejected astrology outright, but Holst apparently kept an open mind. Some believe that this passing interest in astrology inspired the making of "The Planets." Others believe it was nothing more than a springboard which set Holst's imagination into motion.
Some years after composing "The Planets," Holst read James Jean's popular book on astronomy, "The Mysterious Universe." According to Holst's biographer, Michael Short, “Holst realized with excitement that the ideas which were put forward in scientific terms were exactly the same as those which he had been trying to express in music many years before.” Short goes on to observe that “the enormity of the universe revealed by science cannot readily be grasped by the human brain, but the music of 'The Planets' enables the mind to acquire some comprehension of the vastness of space where rational understanding fails.”
Astronomy has advanced dramatically through the stunning photographic images collected over the years by the Hubble Space Telescope. One can only wonder what Holst might have thought had he seen the recently published photo NASA has made public of the Andromeda galaxy, the closest spiral galaxy to our Milky Way. The image, made up of 511 high resolution photographs, is literally out of this world. Perhaps the time has come for another musical vision of our universe, one which will allow us to comprehend this new, mind-blowing concept of space.
On this week's Classics a la Carte (Friday from 7-9 PM), we will hear not only Gustav Holst's work, but also a sampling of other musical spins on what is out there, all good fun as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft rapidly approaches its rendezvous with Pluto.