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Classical 101

Gustav Holst's Birthday Followed by the Autumnal Equinox

English composer Gustav Holst was born on this date in 1874 and lived until 1934. Tomorrow, September 22, is the Autumnal Equinox, officially the first day of Autumn.  The astronomical event, which marks the change of seasons, got me thinking about Holst's most popular composition, his symphonic suite The Planets. This richly descriptive work, written during the First World War, is a musical portrait of our celestial neighbors circling the sun at various distances and rates of speed.  These wanderers of the night sky have been observed since ancient times and humans have speculated on their significance and meaning for ages. Today we know much more about them, especially since the space probes launched by NASA sent back all their photos and data.  Most recently the Curiosity lander on Mars is reporting back with amazing photos of its sandy surface and chemical analyses of its soil and thin atmosphere.  What we see there is not "The Bringer of War" that Holst describes in his music for Mars.  Ditto, Venus, "The Bringer of Love."  With its dense poisonous atmosphere and 900 degree surface temperature, Venus is not quite so alluring.  And Mercury?  "The Winged Messenger" is an airless rock too hot, too close to the sun, and looks a lot like our moon.  And so it goes with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.  Something different is being described in this musical voyage.  Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930, so Holst couldn't include it, but apparently today astronomers are debating its status as a planet. But Holst was thinking more along the lines of the ancient people who named the planets in the first place.  In a time when religion, myth, and science were much more intermingled, observing the movements of the planets against the fixed stars and in relation to the sun gave rise to astrology, reading the meaning of human life and events in relation to the celestial travelers and their stellar companions.  What we know as modern astronomy came much later. The names of the planets as we know them in the West came from the ancient Roman deities of mythology, but Holst was using them to create a musical portrait of human characteristics based on their psychological inner meaning derived from astrology.  That's why jovial Jupiter is "The Bringer of Jollity," or Uranus is "The Magician" and Neptune, "The Mystic." As we now head into this change of seasons signaled by the Autumnal Equinox and the chilly Fall mornings, the  planet that musically most suits this harbinger of Winter to come, for me,  is Saturn, "The Bringer of Old Age." In Roman mythology, Saturn was, among other things, a god of time.  So, as we approach this astronomical marker on our spinning Earth also journeying around the sun, Happy Birthday to England's Gustav Holst, and thanks to him for creating these wonderful musical portraits.  We'll soon be getting out the rakes to clean up the falling leaves, and Ole Man Winter won't be that far behind. http://youtu.be/Qb79SiZrzvw