'The Planets' At 100: A Listener's Guide To Holst's Solar System : Deceptive Cadence Take an interplanetary trek through the English composer's symphonic blockbuster with the help of a conductor and an astronomer.
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'The Planets' At 100: A Listener's Guide To Holst's Solar System

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'The Planets' At 100: A Listener's Guide To Holst's Solar System

'The Planets' At 100: A Listener's Guide To Holst's Solar System

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One hundred years ago, a symphonic blockbuster was born in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS")

SIMON: "The Planets," by Gustav Holst, premiered on this date in 1918. The seven movements of the suite are named after planets from our solar system, and Holst's work has been sampled, stolen and cherished by the likes of John Williams, Frank Zappa, prog rock bands, though never by BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. Here's NPR's Tom Huizenga to guide us through Holst's "Planets."

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: First, we need someone who knows the music.

SAKARI ORAMO: Sakari Oramo.

HUIZENGA: The chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is from Finland. Oramo opened the Proms Festival, London's biggest classical music event this summer, with "The Planets." Next, someone who knows the real planets.

HEIDI HAMMEL: I'm Heidi Hammell, and I'm a planetary astronomer.

HUIZENGA: Gustav Holst, however, was more of an astrologer. His inspiration came from the personalities of the planets. He gave each of them nicknames, like "Mars, The Bringer Of War," where we begin our planetary trek. Sakari Oramo and Heidi Hammel say Holst unholsters the big guns in his first movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: MARS, THE BRINGER OF WAR")

ORAMO: Mars is a war machine.

HAMMEL: The red planet - blood red. It's actually red not because of blood but because of iron in the surface in the rocks that rusts essentially.

ORAMO: You could refer to "Mars" as the sort of forefather of music for films describing interstellar warfare.

HUIZENGA: Since we're talking movies...

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THE IMPERIAL MARCH")

ORAMO: Yes, yes, "Star Wars." Yeah, I love it. Oh, I love it.

HUIZENGA: Is that a rip-off?

ORAMO: I wouldn't call it a rip-off. It's based on the principals which Holst created for "Mars," and all composers steal from each other (laughter).

HUIZENGA: And some get caught. Oscar winner Hans Zimmer was sued by The Holst Foundation for writing music an awful lot like "Mars" in his score for "Gladiator." Holst's second movement brings us to "Venus, The Bringer Of Peace."

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: VENUS, THE BRINGER OF PEACE")

HUIZENGA: The planet is named after the goddess of love.

HAMMEL: Venus is not a loving place at all. It's a hellish landscape so hot that lead would melt on its surface.

HUIZENGA: Hellish maybe, but the music...

ORAMO: "Venus" is beautiful but enigmatic. It has achingly beautiful music for the winds and horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: VENUS, THE BRINGER OF PEACE")

HUIZENGA: Heading closer to the sun, we're now at "Mercury." Holst subtitled it "The Winged Messenger."

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: MERCURY, THE WINGED MESSENGER")

ORAMO: "Mercury" is a very bouncy figure (vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: MERCURY, THE WINGED MESSENGER")

HAMMEL: Something crazy about Mercury is that even though it's so close to the sun, it does have craters, and some of those craters are deep enough and have ice in them.

HUIZENGA: Gustav Holst's "Planets" don't exactly line up like our own. The astrologer-composer brings us next to "Jupiter, The Bringer Of Jollity," and we're back with Sakari Oramo.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: JUPITER, THE BRINGER OF JOLLITY")

HUIZENGA: So you're a Scorpio.

ORAMO: Yeah, like, beginning of Scorpio.

HUIZENGA: So what planet are you?

ORAMO: I think I'm Jupiter, yes.

HUIZENGA: You're jolly?

ORAMO: Pretty jolly for a Finn, let's put it that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: JUPITER, THE BRINGER OF JOLLITY")

HUIZENGA: Jupiter is the biggest planet. So big, says Heidi Hammell, it's like a solar system unto itself.

HAMMEL: It's got a whole retinue of moons - 79 moons now. That's a lot of moons.

HUIZENGA: Wow.

Holst's "Jupiter" boasts a lot of tunes. Sakari Oramo calls this one rambustious (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: JUPITER, THE BRINGER OF JOLLITY")

ORAMO: It's like an elephant in a porcelain shop very happily destroying everything and being very glad about it.

HUIZENGA: It's such a catchy tune, it was hijacked by the British rock group Manfred Mann.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOYBRINGER")

MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND: (Singing) I bring life and I can take you where you can see and feel and breathe and touch the air.

ORAMO: (Vocalizing) It's lovely.

HUIZENGA: And now we're reaching the outer planets and "Saturn, The Bringer Of Old Age," where time ticks away like an old clock.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: SATURN, THE BRINGER OF OLD AGE")

HAMMEL: Saturn's main claim to fame, of course, is its fantastic ring system.

HUIZENGA: And what exactly are those rings?

HAMMEL: Sometimes people say they're the lost airline luggage (laughter).

HUIZENGA: That's an astronomer's joke. Actually the rings are particles of dust and ice, some as big as your house. Leaving Saturn now, our next stop is...

HAMMEL: We astronomers pronounce it Uranus.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: URANUS, THE MAGICIAN")

ORAMO: It's slightly vulgar.

HUIZENGA: Holst subtitles it "The Magician."

ORAMO: Making magic but not necessarily for the purpose of common good. It has also this slight nastiness in the rhythm (vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: URANUS, THE MAGICIAN")

HUIZENGA: The mystery increases as we finally reach "Neptune." Astrologers equate the planet with transcendence, myth and hope. Conductor Sakari Oramo points out that Holst ends the piece with a surprise - a wordless female chorus.

ORAMO: Radiating a strange, foreign light that is not known to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS: NEPTUNE, THE MYSTIC")

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Vocalizing).

HUIZENGA: Gustav Holst's music, astronomer Heidi Hammel says, drifts away far into the cosmos and seems to ask what else is out there?

HAMMEL: We have the capability now to build the tools that can look at planets around other stars and tell us if there's signs of life there. We just have to choose to do it. Whether we will or not is something that's above my pay grade.

(LAUGHTER)

HUIZENGA: Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

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