The Planets: Landmarks of Note
Listening Landmarks are in boldface
Being in the audience at a World Premiere is a remarkable thing. In this programme, you have the honour of hearing not just one, but two World Premieres. The Orchestra will welcome you with a brand new, never-before-heard, fanfare, and leave you floating quietly in the outer reaches of our Solar System.
Spirit of Canada
Composed by Elizabeth Raum (born 1945) in 2020 for Orchestra Toronto
A World Premiere (about 2 minutes long)
What better way to open a concert, than with a rousing fanfare?
Have you ever seen a play at the Stratford Festival? When the trumpets and drum call the audience to take their seats, they’re playing fanfares.
Fanfares are short, showy, and loud tunes, often led by high brass & percussion, proudly introducing something or somebody important.
(Those Foyer Fanfares were written specifically for the Festival by Canadian composer Louis Applebaum, back when William Shatner was treading the boards there — before he started exploring those strange new worlds. But more about those worlds at the end of this concert.)
And now, Orchestra Toronto has their very own fanfare, too, written specifically for them, by composer-in-residence Elizabeth Raum.
Raum wrote this regal fanfare as her contribution to the What’s Your Marathon Fund-raising campaign, which Orchestra Toronto ran during the pandemic. As she describes it:
since people couldn’t run marathons in person, they’d offer an activity they could do and people would donate towards it. So, for instance, someone could walk or run 5 miles, or bake 50 cookies, or sew 50 masks. My choice was to write a fanfare.Elizabeth Raum, on why she wrote Spirit of Canada.
And what a grand fanfare Spirit of Canada is, too. The first of today’s two World Premieres was written for a very large orchestra. You see, not all orchestral pieces require exactly the same combination of instruments, but fortunately The Planets just so happens to call for a huge orchestra, too.
Before it begins, imagine the tune of O Canada. Raum points out that her fanfare could be considered to be a fantasy on O Canada. So, keep listening for parts of this piece which remind you of our national anthem. It’s intentional. A bit like a game of hide and seek, where you’re looking for that tune, and parts of it keep popping out, to tease you, then hiding again.
The piece opens with a dramatic harp glissando, rising to a cymbal crash, which is simultaneous with a bass note from the double basses, cellos, and tuba. The strings and percussion establish a bouncy and majestic rapid 6-beat rhythm, setting a lively tempo, and continuing under the trumpets, as they announce themselves, playing high in their register. It’s attention grabbing, and that’s exactly what fanfares are supposed to do.
After hinting at O Canada and tossing variations on parts of that tune around between the instruments, the piece comes to a stirring conclusion. As that 6-beat rhythm returns, the brass play higher and higher, then are cut off by the lower instruments playing four quick, short, forceful, chords.
We are fortunate to have today’s premiere of this new piece led by Orchestra Toronto’s Apprentice Conductor, Sidney Chiu.
Composed by Maziar Heidari (born 1976) in 2020 for Orchestra Toronto
A 2nd World Premiere (about 9 minutes long)
Brace yourself. This rollicking piece really hits the ground running.
Right at the downbeat, the orchestra is immediately quick, crisp, and percussive. This part goes by quickly, but what’s happening is that the timpani and lower instruments play only when the higher violins & horns aren’t playing, & vice versa. (The midrange instruments are left out here, to accentuate the difference between the extreme upper & lower ranges.) Together, they play a steady stream of eighth notes, but jumping back & forth between higher & lower instruments, which creates excitement.
And we’ll hear a harkening back to this rousing opening, at the very end of the piece.
The next time you’re near a piano, play the notes from B up to B, on the white keys only.
That’s a scale called Locrian mode. It’ll sound a bit odd, because the 5th note is lower than usual – a tritone. Tritones are often used in music to create tension or dissonance. (Think the first 2 notes of Maria, from West Side Story. That’s a tritone.)
After those exciting first four bars, you’ll hear the two oboes introducing the main theme. That theme is in Locrian mode.
Keep your ears open, for this intriguing theme being broken up, altered, and passed between instruments. It happens through the whole piece.
Now, let’s talk about the rhythm. The way the composer has used rhythm in this piece is really quite fascinating.
Those first 4 bars set up an alternating rhythm which you’ll keep hearing: alternating bars of 3/4 & 6/8. (Count 123123 | 1&2&3& | 123123 | 1&2&3&)
In fact, the piece is almost entirely in triple time, but keeps switching between the different time signatures 3/4, 3/8, 6/8, and even 9/8. (Which are counted 1&2&3&, 123, 123123, 123123123)
Just try counting along with the music and you’ll see what I mean. It’s delightfully complex. A few non-triple time signatures crop up around the 2-minute and 4-minute marks. After that, it settles into a simple 3/4.
The last four bars echo the very beginning, alternating rhythm and quick theme cleverly combined, bringing the piece to a dramatic conclusion.
Why Fantasia? Heidari says that he chose the title Fantasia to refer to an imaginative musical “idea,” rather than to a specific compositional genre.
There is no specific story behind it. I have tried to echo the minds who have experienced significant life changes, such as leaving their homeland behind or being detached from their roots for any good or bad reason.”
He also says that this piece “reflects the wide range of music that I was listening to, during the creative process, from Bach to Metallica.” And, speaking of Bach …
Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
Composed by J.S. Bach (Germany, 1685-1750) between
Orchestral Arrangement by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
(about 15 minutes long)
We know that Bach wrote this astonishing piece in his early 20s, but the original copy of the score has been lost. Thank goodness that copies of the piece, written down by others, have survived.
Keep in mind that we’re not hearing this piece in its original version, in today’s concert. This orchestral version is a reimagining of Bach’s original keyboard piece, which he likely wrote for pipe organ alone. Just imagine the opening theme thundering out on the lowest pipes of an organ – and played entirely by the organist’s feet!
There have been quite a few orchestral arrangements, over the years (including for small brass or string ensembles and even for handbells). Respighi is known for his rich symphonic poems, and his imaginative use of all of the colours of the orchestra. His orchestration of this, Bach’s longest organ work, is considered one of the best versions.
If it sounds familiar, then you may have heard this piece in films such as White Nights (1985). Jimi Hendrix was also a fan and played this theme on his electric guitar in Lift Off.
“Intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed.” That’s what composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) said about this piece.
And intertwined is a fantastic way to describe it.
The opening is simple enough. The lowest instruments of the orchestra play a simple tune, 8-bars long, in triple time. (Slowly count 1, 2, 3.)
Don’t worry, if you didn’t catch that tune the first time around. You’ll be hearing it tossed around, from instrument to instrument (mostly the lower ones, but not always), repeated over & over. This repeated theme is called an ostinato and this is a great example of it.
You might think that so many repetitions would become tiresome, but Bach’s doing something fresh and new, each time. What’s being intertwined around this theme are the other instruments, playing more & more inventive variations. It’s like the theme is the trunk of a vine, and the other instruments are weaving themselves around it, as they all rise upwards.
And that’s what a Passacaglia is. A series of continuous variations, over a repeated 8-bar bass ostinato, in triple time. When you look up the definition of Passacaglia, this is the piece which is hailed as the prime example, and it’s the only piece by this name which Bach wrote.
Around the 8-minute mark, after 20 magnificent and increasingly inventive, variations, you’ll hear this theme broken in half. The first half is the same, but the second half is a faster variation on that tune. Together, these two themes are used to build a double fugue (“double” because it uses two subjects).
A fugue is a bit like a round (e.g. Row, Row, Row Your Boat). In a round, the tune just gets repeated, but in a fugue, the theme itself keeps changing and evolving and speaking over itself.
Now, it’s the theme which is intertwining with itself, building and building to a dramatic held Neapolitan chord. All movement stops for a moment, then the 8 final bars bring this huge piece to its majestic ending.
Composed by Gustav Holst (England, 1874-1934) between 1914 & 1917
(about 50 minutes long)
The orchestra needed to perform this work is enormous. I rather like composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ admiring explanation of why Holst needed such a huge orchestra: “Not to make his score look impressive, but because he needs the extra tone colour & knows how to use it.”
The Planets premiered in London, in 1918. The concert was only a few weeks before the end of World War I, to a small invited audience of 250, including most of the professional musicians in London. And the orchestra playing the piece didn’t actually see the complex music until just 2 hours before they had to perform it!
After its premiere, The Planets quickly became an audience favourite, at concerts internationally. It was the success of this piece which made Holst famous, but he was quite shy by nature & preferred to simply be left alone to teach & compose.
Why aren’t the planets in order? Holst originally intended to do so, but switched them around, purely for the sake of creating a more compelling musical experience. And that is why we begin with Mars (the second planet from the Sun), rather than Mercury (closest to the Sun).
Even though Pluto was discovered in 1930, four years before his death, Holst declined the temptation to write an additional movement for that planet. Several other composers have since written their own Pluto movements, to add to this suite; however, that’s unlikely to continue, since Pluto’s demotion to a minor planet in 2006.
You’ve likely heard some of this music before, even if you can’t remember where. Perhaps it was in films such as The Right Stuff, The Man Who Fell to Earth, or even Boss Baby or Annie Hall. It could have been in video games such as Civilization V & Battlefield V. Or even one of the many rock bands who adapted parts into their own music, including King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, & Black Sabbath.
Keep in mind that the inspiration for this work comes from astrology, rather than astronomy. The Planets is a suite, where each of the seven movements has a completely different character. That character is based on a trait, associated with that planet’s astrological influence on one’s personality. Holst himself described the work as “a series of mood pictures.”
The year before he began writing this piece, while on holiday in Spain, Holst had become fascinated by astrology. Throughout his life, he referred to astrology has his pet vice & enjoyed casting elaborate astrological charts & interpretations for his friends.
He even lifted the title of a movement (Neptune, the Mystic) directly from the title of chapter 12 of the book on astrology which he was reading, at the time, The Art of Synthesis by Alan Leo. The quotations below, I’ve lifted from that book, which influenced Holst’s impression of how each planet influences us.
If you’re curious, we’re fortunate to have access to a facsimile of this entire book online, at https://archive.org/details/artofsynthesis00leoa/mode/2up
Mars, the Bringer of War
“The whole of the purely animal nature in man is under the influence of Mars.”
In Roman mythology, Mars is the god of war, and Holst wrote this movement just before the outbreak of World War I. Holst immediately sets the agitated tone of this movement with a quick bass ostinato (like in Bach’s Passacaglia). If you count along, you’ll notice that there seems to be an extra beat, in each bar. It’s in a fast 5/4 time signature, rather than the more common 4/4.
Watch the violins. They’re not using the hair of their bows, to play. Instead, they’re bouncing the wooden part of the bow on the strings, for a percussive sound. This is called col legno (Italian for “with the wood”). It’s this disquieting & driving repeated pattern, against which the tune is now overlayed. This melody is a series of rising fifths, each dropping to a tritone (as we heard in Heidari’s Fantasia), which also adds to our growing sense of unease. With a distinctly military feel, the volume rises, then ebbs, in waves, until loudly breaking on the final clashing notes at a quadruple forte.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
“All things that are sweet & pleasant come under the rule of Venus. Its essence is harmony & pure bliss.”
At the opening, the French horn is joined by the flutes, in a simple rising & falling tune. This establishes a welcome sense of peace, after the violence of the last movement. Using only a portion of this large orchestra’s instruments, it sounds more like a small chamber ensemble. Holst said, of this movement, “The mood is unmistakably mystical & the hero may indeed imagine himself contemplating the twinkling stars on a still night.” Listen to which instruments are depicting this twinkling. It’s the delicate playing of the harps, glockenspiel, & celeste.
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
“Mercury may give much restlessness & love of change.”
This is the shortest movement & was the last to be written. Although short, it is, in many ways, much more complex. Mercury is the messenger of the Roman gods (depicted as having wings on his feet). As one might picture him flitting about, here & there, the music moves quickly between different keys, in different instruments, to make it seem to dash around, frenetically. The rapidly changing rhythms & crossrhythms keep us unsettled. Be sure to listen for exactly the same melody being played 12 times in a row, each time by a different instrument or group of instruments.
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
“Jupiter governs a combination of feeling & thought. It includes humanity, benevolence, compassion, honour, candour, good humour, & the higher moral & social qualities.”
Right at the top, the violins play a repeated quick, rising three-note motif. Quickly joining in, overtop of this, the French horns add a syncopated (a jagged rhythm) melody, which is then embellished by the rest of the orchestra. Throughout this movement, Holst keeps introducing new themes, all quite imaginative and joyful. Listen for the introduction of each new theme and how it gets tossed around between instruments and sections, as well as how it gets changed a bit with each repetition.
Watch the timpani. This larger than usual orchestra includes two players, each with their own set of timpani. This allows for the rare opportunity for them to divide the notes between them & play an entire tune.
The slow & stately theme, in the middle of this movement, may sound familiar. Years later, Holst lifted this tune, to become the patriotic English hymn, I Vow to Thee My Country, by adding words from a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice. (And many years later, in 1991, it was even adopted as the official Rugby World Cup’s theme song, World in Union.)
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
“Saturn is slow, cold, and deliberate … represents all stages of endurance and permanence… and Homage leading to reverence and respect.”
For the Romans, Saturn was a god of time. The harps and flutes play a tune that seems to be rocking back and forth, like the ticking of a clock. Underneath, a slow theme is added, in double basses. This is a wonderful depiction of time passing slowly and ponderously. The stately and solemn march that follows grows gradually louder, as if the marchers are approaching. It is interrupted by the tubular bells ringing out, perhaps depicting church bells? Resolving itself from this chaos, the movement ends serenely. Of the seven movements, this was Holst’s personal favourite.
Uranus, the Magician
“Uranus stands for the creative Will that shapes primal matter into forms & evolves a cosmos from it.”
A fanfare of timpani, trumpets, and trombones announce the magician’s arrival. Listen for a repeated four-note motif with wide leaps, at varying speeds, and played by different instruments. You’ll keep hearing these four notes, sometimes disguised, through this whole movement. Even when a new tune is introduced, it’s this motif which ends it. The bombastic march tune at the end of this movement is very different from Saturn’s march, as it drives grandiosely ahead, straight into a sudden stop on a loud, full orchestra, chord.
Neptune, the Mystic
“Neptune is connected with enchantments and enchanters…is highly musical and conduces to inspirational composition, dream-melodies, melodic hauntings, and so forth.”
With the disquieting opening of Mars, and the exuberant Jupiter in the middle, ending with this quiet movement is rather shocking, in its own way. Ending this suite so quietly is unexpected and extremely effective. The treble-voice choir has waited until this moment, to sing. Since the whole suite is about the influence of the planets on people, ending the work with voices is a nice touch.
Often concealed in an adjoining room, offstage, the choir joins in, wordlessly accentuating the scintillating texture of the orchestra. As the instruments fade to silence, it is intended that the singers keep repeating the last bar. As they do so, the door to the choir’s room is to be slowly closed, to have them hauntingly fade away to nothing. Holst leaves us spinning and drifting through space, out at the far reaches of our solar system.
Orchestra Toronto will perform The Planets on May 29, 2022, at 3:00 p.m.
Trevor Rines is a writer, musician, graphic and boardgame designer, and stage and voice actor, who has performed in every one of Shakespeare’s plays & has acted as narrator for three Orchestra Toronto concerts.
He performs with the notorious Renaissance gemshorn quartet, The Gemsmen, & was recently a contestant on Evil Idol.