So far, the Classical in Conversation blog has taken us on a journey through classical music, from the beginning of Bach to the end of Einaudi, and we love each and every one of the composers and works that we’ve featured so far. Over the course of this series it’s becoming clear that there are some classical works that are ALWAYS worth talking about. Today is one of those days. Yes, hello Mr Holst…
He’s the English composer that inspired some of the greatest film composers of the modern day – think Hans Zimmer and John Williams. His most iconic work, The Planets, has stood the test of time and will undoubtedly be a part of orchestral repertoire for generations to come.
But first, let’s talk about the man behind the music. Gustav Holst, born and raised in Cheltenham (but of German, Latvian and Swedish descent), was from a pretty musical family that has generations of professional musicians to shout about, so it was only natural that little Gustav might follow the same path. He had aspired to become a pianist, though was prevented by some health problems in his right arm which is what made him switch to a focus in composition.
Interestingly, when Holst first applied for a scholarship position at the Royal College of Music he was pipped to the post by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, who you’ll also find on the RSL Classical Piano syllabus! Holst did gain a place as a non-scholarship student, though it meant some significant financial strain for his family who had to borrow £100 to cover the fees (and remember that we’re talking about the 1890’s here)!
Whilst at the school he made friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams, who would also go on to make a huge name for himself in composition. They became perfect companions and would critique each other’s work to help themselves become the best composers they could be – don’t we all need a friendship like this?!
Leaving the Royal College of Music for the real world made Gustav Holst realise that it would be quite difficult to make money from his compositions alone, so he took many a teaching position (in which he was a real pioneer for making music education more accessible to women, woop!), and various gigs playing the trombone – a true working freelancer. His career only afforded him life’s necessities, but that didn’t stop him from keeping going.
Now, you’re undoubtedly sat there thinking, “can we please talk about The Planets?!”, and the answer is, of course, yes we can. This is the seven-part suite that ultimately made Holst a household name for the rest of his life (and beyond!). It has become by far his most popular work, even though Holst himself was not overly joyous about it! If you didn’t already know - and hadn’t already guessed – each movement is named after a different planet, and the mood of each piece expresses the astrological character of that planet, hence “Mars, the Bringer of War”, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace”, and so on.
But potentially our favourite of the seven movements is “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”. It is not an over-exaggeration to say that this piece contains some of the most memorable melodies in orchestral music to date, and we definitely wanted a slice of the pie in the RSL Classical Piano syllabus, so you’ll find a section of this beautiful work in Grade 1.
Our piano arrangement isn’t quite as long as Holst’s original composition, but we certainly don’t want to lose the majestic, stately character of this unbelievable melody. We’d strongly recommend listening to the orchestral work to get a real flavour of how much weight this piece has, how much substance, and how the slow and continuous build up is what makes it so emotional. So, pay attention to that fingering and see how legato you can make it.
We honestly can’t wait to see this being played in the exam room.