The Planets: A look at the Solar System through Gustav Holst’s Music and Modern Astronomical Data

Ryan Evans

October 3, 2010

Table of Contents

Introduction                                                                                                                3

Chapter   Pages
1 Mercury: The Winged Messenger 5
2 Venus: Bringer of Peace 8
3 Mars: Bringer of War 11
4 Jupiter: Bringer of Jolly 15
5 Saturn: Bringer of Old Age 18
6 Uranus: The Magician 21
7 Neptune: The Mystic 23
8 Early Astronomers 29
9 Conclusion 35


Bibliography                                                                                                               38























Gustav Holst, the famous British composer of the early 1900’s musically portrayed the eight known planets of our solar system based upon the characteristics of astrology and the attributes surrounding the corresponding Roman Gods in his seven-movement orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32. Surprisingly when comparing modern scientific data about each planet recently collected from probes and robotic explorers, it is astonishingly how fittingly accurate his musical representation of each celestial body is. Furthermore the innate message in tone, rhythm, and pacing align with physical characteristics such as planet rotation, surface temperature and planet landscape that during the span between 1914 and 1916 when Holst composed his orchestral suite lacked the knowledge of. The Planets, Op. 32, is broken into seven movements each representing a specific planet, omitting our own terrestrial planet Earth because Earth did not belong to the followings of astrology.[1] The movements are purposely arraigned out of order for he mastered the mood and tone of each to flow into a crescendo of artistic order. The order of the movements are as follows: Mars the bringer of war, Venus the bringer of peace, Mercury the winged messenger, Jupiter the bringer of jollity, Saturn the bringer of old age, Uranus the magician, and finally, Neptune the mystic. I debated on which way to order the planets in this essay, whether to logically address each planet in its natural order in our Solar System, or to stay true to the order of the musical movements in Holst’s suite. I have decided to keep to the natural order for from a scientific comparative format it is the most logical. This order also services logic by separating the terrestrial planets from the Jovian planets for both sets have vastly different scientific properties as well as tone and astrological character and description in both their physical and mythical manifestation. That being said, this work will be ordered in the natural order determined by proximity to the sun starting with Mercury then preceding to Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and finishing with Neptune. When Writing The Planets, Holst commented that his order was selected so that it would work as he designed as “a series of mood pictures, acting as foils to one another”.[2] He admitted that he used the astrological connotations of the planets as a starting point in which to start and construct and structure a unique mood for each planet. His end result stands a classical masterpiece that stands the test of time in portraying our diverse solar system.









Mercury: The Winged Messenger

Mercury, named after the God and Astrological figure who served as the winged messenger with the easily identifiable winged helmet or shoes depending on whether you reference the Roman or Greek version of the shared deity was characteristically known for its small size, stature, and nimble fast speed which in course is an very relativistic description and portrayal of the material planet itself. Being the first planet in orbit around the sun, Mercury has the shortest orbit and by far has the fastest orbit. In fact, scientifically speaking, Mercury travels at a speed of 128,000 miles per hour (206,000 km/hr).[3] To put that extreme velocity into perspective, if a standard aircraft could fly at that speed it could circle the entire Earth in less than twelve minutes.[4] Holst’s music is at a quickened up beat tempo that clearly represents the rapid rate of rotation and quick short elliptical orbit Mercury takes to zip around the sun.

In accordance with Mercury’s rapid rotation and speedy orbit around the sun, its temperatures are also extreme since it is the planet closest to the sun. Daytime surface temperatures can exceed 600K (330ºC).[5] The small planet has no atmosphere to retain heat so at night, the surface can cool to 100K (-173ºC).[6]

According to Imogen Holst, Gustav’s own daughter who prepared and edited his orchestral composition of The Planets suite with publisher Goodwin & Tabb in 1921, the mechanics and methods of tempo and dynamic fortitude were deliberately manipulated by her father to portray each specific planet’s characteristic.[7] In the case with Holst’s melodic representation of the winged messenger God of Mercury, he used rapidly quick staccato tempo to drive out the theme of haste.[8] It is described musically by Imogen as a swiftly moving scherzo that sweeps through a restless leggiero.[9] Holst consulted the help of the Astrologer and Horoscope writer, Alan Leo, for background on the moods of the planets. Leo described Mercury as the “winged messenger of the gods gives adaptability, fertility of resource, and the ability to use the mind in various ways”.[10] All this swift and fast movement is handled quite delicately with the lightest possible touch on the notes to represents the meager figure of the God and the planet alike. It uses broken chords with inversion combinations of B flat and E flat to implement a restless aesthetic of dart and flow which can translate scientifically to the rapid rotation and hyper orbit of the actual planet Mercury. [11]

The clarity of the light representation of the rapidly movement of the piece can be considered in modern terms to represent the bright exposure to the sun that the majority of the rocky terrestrial planet is bombarded with due to its spatial proximity to the solar system’s central star astronomically labeled and cataloged as Sol. The direct effect of this closeness and raw exposure to the ultra violet rays and radiation from the Sun is high temperature and highly cratered and heat baked surface. Mercury itself hosts an old battered and cratered surface.[12] This quick projectile impacted surface has a strong resemblance to the quick ascending and descending runs and quips in Holst’s movement covering the planet. The photographs taken by the Mariner 10 space probe discovered two different plains on the cratered surface of Mercury, the intercrater plain and the smooth plain. The intercrater plain are less cratered than the rest of the planet consisting of meteorite craters less then 15 km in diameters and others created by hunks of ejecta from the larger meteorite impacts.[13] These areas stand apart from other regions on the planet that are heavily saturated with meteorite craters and scientist postulates that this was caused by lava flow that filled in old existing creators.[14]

This busy and pummeled planet’s surface can easily relate to an imagined winged messenger. A messenger who constantly darts this way and that, leaving behind dotted creators in his wake. The areas labeled as the smooth plains are exactly as they are named the smoothest and therefore the youngest areas on the planets surface where again it is attributed to fresh terrestrial lava flow smoothing out that area and basins on the surface of the closest planet to the sun.

Venus: Bringer of Peace

Holst approached Venus very delicately. He wanted to emphasize the feminine beauty and peace that enveloped the essence of the astrological Venus. He accomplished this by placating majestic calm solo horn notes that seem to flow and glow throughout open space that is added to by crystal clear flowery notes of flutes and the glitter of oboes to bring a real feeling of solace and beauty.[15] The flutes flourish the melody at a pleasant adagio tempo that is not rushed but savors the beauty and lightness of the mood.[16] This movement follows Mars and was intentionally placed to counterbalance the welled feelings of warfare and masculinity with an embellishment of peace, beauty, harmony, and femininity. The fluttering of the flutes can be taken to represent the glimmering golden sunlight reflected from the thick layer of golden yellow clouds as seen from space.

Venus the Goddess of Love and peace reflects the deep golden clouded shine of the planet itself encased in beauty. The reality as found by NASA probes is anything but as the surface is encased by a violent and toxic carbon dioxide, sulfuric acid, and hydrofluoric acid atmosphere and a surface temperature hot enough to melt led.[17] When scientist were finally able to construct a robotic probe robust enough to survive the intense heat and pressures of the Venusian atmosphere and surface, they recorded a startling surface temperature of 880 degrees Fahrenheit (745 K) and an atmospheric pressure 90 times that of Earth.[18] In fact in direct comparison the air in Earth’s atmosphere is 1000 times less dense than water but the Venusian atmosphere is only 10 times less dense than water.[19] Its complex chemical composition of 96% carbon dioxide (CO2), 3.5% nitrogen (N), and 0.5% water vapor (H2O), sulfuric acid (H2SO4), Hydrochloric acid (HCl), and hydrofluoric acid (HF). Scientists believe that the clouds are formed from sulfuric acid droplets and microscopic sulfur crystals. [20] The swan song like solo of the obo in a sense can depict the thick and bright golden sun deflecting swirling clouds of Venus’ toxic atmosphere.[21]

The sulfuric weather system of Venus is surprisingly stable and peaceful due to a higher and more regular rate of atmospheric circulation than on Earth which also nods to Holst’s comparison of Venus as the bringer of peace. The entire planet is shrouded in golden yellow clouds that implement an extreme greenhouse effect scorching the entire surface to a searing 800 degrees. In comparison to a Goddess of beauty, love, and womanhood are usually linked with warmth and fertility glowing gold jewelry or blonde hair resembling wealth and glowing beauty. Holst equates these values by pulling the lyrical bars of Vigil of Pentecost and putting them at the opening bars of the movement of Venus to embrace the feminine gleam of beauty and peace.[22]

When considering Holst’s interpretation as the Goddess of Peace and Love we must not commit an anachronism for during his time period their knowledge of the planet was from a distant view of the shrouded tops of the golden clouds that shrouded the hidden molten and volcanic surface later found by robotic probes. Holst strategically placed the movement of Venus after Mars to provide a counterpoint and a transition to calm solo horn notes and melodic and soothing melodies.[23] Repeated cords and switching almost wind like effects does vaguely hint at the real turbulent clouds in Venus’s toxic turbulent atmosphere. Holst also wrote this movement as the world was being plunged into a World War. Dreams of peace and tranquility were perched up as lofty unobtainable goals as society was to witness the horrors of global mechanized trench warfare.

In keeping with the theme of Venus’ namesake, scientists have decided that all the regions and topographical features on Venus should bear female names based upon the international astronomical agreement.[24] Areas such as the Aphrodite Terra, the Phoebe Regio, and the Lakshmi Planum are major areas and features on the Venusian surface.[25] Venus has many large and very active volcanoes and prominent lava channels etched across its firry lava soaked golden surface. The enormous shield volcanoes on Venus such as the Volcano Sapas Mons are created by hot-spot volcanism rather than plate tectonics which generate most Earth volcanoes.[26]

One interesting notion of Venus is that it has close rotation speed relative to earth with a year consisting of 243 days, however, it rotates backwards. A connotation of its reverse rotation may allude to its essence of the female beauty and that women are to be the opposite and mystery to the male therefore as it follows the movement of Mars the epitome of masculinity and warfare it is the direct opposite musically, physically, and thematically.
















Mars: Bringer of War

Holst begins his orchestral work with Mars providing a strong social political commentary on the times. He was creating the work before and during the First World War where it seemed the world was on the brink of destruction.[27] This ominous sense of doom translates to the movement representing Mars which is portrayed by the mythic God of War. The planets blood red color as seen from the telescopes of the time and the mythos surrounding Mars the God of War is really present in the dark and foreboding tone and melody that opens the piece.

Holst started Mars on May 1914 and was finished the first sketch of it before the Great War broke out and engulfed all of Europe. He envisioned the storm that rips through the musical landscape to be a storm in the mind of the war torn man of his present time.[28] The power and despair is created with the absolute baritone power of the bassoons and horns when they rise from G to D and retreat back down sinking down to D flat. This musical sequence gains a growing menace with there growing crescendo and diminuendo topped off with a tragic dissonance of the diminished third’s gap from the minor D flat chord.[29] All this meticulous musical structure resonate a haunting disaster and a harrowing premonition of dark foreboding and turmoil which captures the very essence of Mars the bringer of war. One must take into account that Mars is not program music for even though in our context after two mechanized world wars the music seems perfectly fitting to represent them, Holst wrote and composed the piece before the tank had ever been invented and had not personally heard a machine gun. It is his level of foresight and development of music to fully encompass a theme that makes the piece so relevant and significant. Even today Holst’s Mars is used for many countless documentaries on modern warfare and for both World Wars well after its time and it seems to fit seamlessly almost as if it had been directly written to fulfill that purpose.

Mars does possess impressive masculine like geological features including massive volcanoes, enormous carved valleys and canyons, networked channels, and polar ice caps.[30] Its rigged valleys and oxidized rust red blood like surface provide a strong correlation with ideology of blood and war. With more and more data from new research pointing to supporting evidence of water and a Martian past where water flowed through the many canals and marked valleys, the state of mars today can uphold an essence of Armageddon thought to be the end state of uncontrolled warfare. War has in many mediums through many different cultures as a plague in which the life bringing rivers and streams of water dry up and transform into rivers of blood. In a sense erosion of the planet mars has dried up that water and left the once flourishing river valleys covered in blood red dust. Robotic probes have found small traces of water and a substantial amount of evidence supporting water filled past for Mars.[31] Many space probes and robot explorers have been sent to Mars, more than any planet in our solar system.

The numbers of probes, Landers, and rovers that have visited and been used to study the red planet was numerous from different nations. The following is a chronological list of missions to mars and the initial year of their mission. Mars I (USSR) 1962, Mariner 4 1964, Zond 3 (USSR) 1965, Mariner 9 1971, Viking I and II 1975, Phobos (USSR) 1988, Mars Observer 1992, Mars, Global Surveyor 1996, Pathfinder 1996, Nozomi Planet B (Japan) 1998, Odyssey 2001, Mars Express (US, ESA, ISA) 2003, Spirit Mars Exploration Rover A 2003, Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover B 2003, Phoenix 2007, Netlanders (France) 2007, Mars Telecom Orbiter 2009. The United States is planning on sending a manned mission to Mars with preliminary steps to start 2011.[32] Scientists have gained a great amount of detailed knowledge and data from the experiments and data readings collected by these robotic explorers.

Throughout the years, Mars has been viewed as a place of foreboding and war. The term ‘Martians’ had been coined in the 1950’s to refer to falsely assumed alian invaders from the planet. On October 31, 1938 the American people were so indoctrinated with the belief that Martians from Mars did exist and that they planned to start a war with Earth and invade, that they fled in mass panic from the radio broadcast of Orson Wells The War of the Worlds. That Halloween night of 1938, a radio announcer interrupted a regularly scheduled broadcast of dance music to report the landing of Martian spacecraft in New Jersey, the emergence of the monstrous Martian beings, and their destruction of whole cities. People went into such a mass panic that the streets of New Jersey broke into mass hysteria on almost riot proportions.[33]

Mars is home to the largest known volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons, located in the Tharsis region with four other massive volcanoes.[34] Olympus Mons towers over the Tharsis plain at a height of 21 km (13 miles). In comparison, Earth’s largest volcano, Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii, is 8 km (5 miles) if you measure it from the base of the sea floor. The base of Olympus Mons is an astonishing 600kms across.[35] The sheer intensity of the lava flows, and the potential for the volcanoes on Mars to erupt again speaks well towards the nature of the God of war.

As in the shift in the face and nature of warfare, Mars has gone through different climates in its history. These differing historical periods with different climates are found evident through the sets of layers found on the surface dug and analyzed by robotic explorers. It is hypothesized that Mars rotated at a steeper angle in the past which would have allowed for a warmer climate which could have allowed flowing water and thicker ice.[36]

The planet itself is a red rock surface cut with deep canyons, gorges and mountains. It has a northern polar ice cap and many attributes similar to earth.[37] According to the data collected from the NASA Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Odyssey, Mars experienced a polar warming that mobilized water vapor and dust into the atmosphere, but today the remains of the valley walls created by these past ice flows are what remains.[38] Its deserted red rocky landscape can be a foreboding reminder on the possible consequences of human war torn endeavors if continue down a war of war and tyranny and with the aid of nuclear warheads our fate may be a desolate existence in a devastated landscape of nuclear fallout.

Jupiter: Bringer of Jolly

Jovial Jupiter, grand and triumphant and monstrous in size is epitomized both through the deep bellowing jolly brought on by the iconic melody that harks joy and celebration. Jupiter holds the Roman name for Lord of the Sky who parades around with a party of moons dancing around its massive mass.[39] Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and is so large that all of the other planets could fit inside it with room to spare. It is three hundred and eighteen times more massive than our Earth.[40]

According to the Roman legend, Calllisto, Europa, and Io were all beautiful women who all fell victims to Jupiter’s lust. When Jupiter’s wife and sister, Juno fell enraged when her husband lusted after Io, Jupiter transformed Io into a heifer to conceal his own infidelity. Juno was not deceived and sought revenge by sending a gadfly to harass Io for all of eternity.[41] When Jupiter moved on to lust after the Arcadian nymph Callisto, Juno turned her into a bear to spite Jupiter. When Callisto’s own son unknowingly encountered his mother (now a bear) in the woods on a hunting trip, Jupiter interceded by placing Callisto as a bear into the northern sky and later changed her son into a bear cub and placed him into the sky by his mother. From this myth we get the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great Bear and Lesser Bear where you would find the navigationally important north star of Polaris.[42]The names of these famous women, who Jupiter chased throughout the myths, became the moons orbiting around Jupiter, some of the most diverse planetary satellites in the solar system.

Jupiter’s atmosphere displays a flourish of intensity of color with whirling patterns of gas and multiple variances of hues.[43] Although the planet is immensely massive in size, its very light for its average density is 1.34 g/cm3 because of its composition of hydrogen (H), helium (He) with traces of methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3) and water vapor (H2O). [44] These light airy gasses float around much like the uplifting melody in the music in all its jovial splendor and flighty ascension created by the flutes and piccolos.[45] Before Holst wrote his movement on Jupiter, much had been discovered about the planet Jupiter. In 1863, New Zealand-born geologist and physicist, Ernest Rutherford, utilized a method that examined light reflected from Jupiter to discover features in its atmosphere.[46] Jupiter is one of the most visible planets and through the use of a telescope many of its satellites are clearly visible.

The grandest and most triumphant of Jupiter’s features is its famous Great Red Spot. The Great Red Spot is a massive anti-cyclonic storm that fluctuates in size, color, and position whirling off center in the planet’s gaseous atmosphere.[47] The Great Red Spot can be seen from Earth. The Great Red Spot can be represented by the grand moving main melody in Holst’s Jupiter movement for it ebbs and flows with all the triumph and wonder of the iconic red storm.

Jupiter’s core contains a unique state of Hydrogen in the form as liquid metallic hydrogen where the hydrogen is condensed by the inner pressure of the planet and the electrons are  free to move and flow like a metal with the ability to conduct electricity and flow like a liquid.[48] This fluid freedom is a direct reaction from the light cheery tone of the musical movement. Jupiter’s poles also glow in spectacular array when seen through an ultra violet (UV) lens. Jupiter’s massive magnetic field interacts with its moon Io to create a doughnut shaped ionized gas of accelerated particles called the labeled the Io plasma torus and it carves a conduit between Jupiter and its moon called the Io Flex tube.[49] The points on Jupiter’s poles where the Io Flux tube which surges at about one million amperes of electric current creates UV glowing aurora makes.[50] These glowing points on the poles can be represented by the glowing powerful timpani that bellow out the powerful rhythm that creates the foundation of the movement.

Holst had trouble with writing Jupiter, for even though he was well natured and had good humor, he had trouble at first, expressing jolly through his music.[51] The movement Jupiter was not intended to be a dance, but instead, a full experience of the sensation of being hitched-up by the unnatural day in an elation of joy.[52] Holst followed Alan Leo’s astrological description of Jupiter existing as bringing an ‘abundance of life and vitality’ and that the qualities of the planet reflected through people but in this case music to be ‘cheery and hopeful in disposition, and possess a noble and generous spirit’.[53] The melodic melody carries the uplifted sense of regal prowess and joy mastered the same way we may marvel at the most massive planet in our solar system.

Saturn: Bringer of Old Age

Saturn is most known for its brilliant rings. The dazzling and mystifying rings were first seen by mankind in the mid-17th century.[54] The rings were taken to represent many things for in botany the rings on old trees told its age which could translate onto Saturn as being very old with its vast number of rings numbering in the hundreds. The planet also travels slowly, for its single orbit or year is equivalent to 29.46 Earth years.[55] Holst presents this through a slow and sad procession carried out by pizzicato crotches of Chellos and bases.[56] Realization and fall of decay carries through to syncopated harps and timpani carrying out a ticking clock with remorseless regularity.[57] All this points to the hundreds of synchronized orbiting rings of Saturn that shroud it in its old age as it slowly hobbles around the sun.

The mythology of Saturn is quite disturbing. Saturn was the wise old father of Jupiter who was the ruler of the universe ruling with his wife and sister, Ops. Incest was very common in mythology as you recall Jupiter had also been married to his sister. A prophecy arose that one of Saturn’s children would depose him of his power. To prevent this prophecy, Saturn proceeded to devour his own children until Ops gave birth to his sixth child Jupiter. Ops saved Jupiter by sending him away to safety. Later, Jupiter grew up and ascended to the throne while Saturn fled to Rome and brought about the Golden Age in his old age. The famous painting by Goya painted around the 1820’s depicts Saturn devouring his child simply titled Saturn Devouring His Son. The almost condescending hesitance in the melodic undertones of the musical movement could be explained to allude to the confusion of decaying fatherhood and perhaps filicide. The music itself is very subversive and quiet in so that its thematic stanzas are hard to convey clear cut moods and thematic statements like the other movements in Holst’s orchestral suite. The mood of the music in this movement does well to match Alan Leo’s claim that Saturn ‘makes the progress through life and steady-those under its influence will be more plodding and persevering than brilliant and active’.[58]

The planet Saturn is composed of helium and hydrogen exclusively with only 0.2% of its atmosphere heavier than helium. Saturn’s atmosphere has violently strong winds. It has clouds composed of ammonia ice (NH3), ammonia hydrosulfide (NH4SH), and water (H2O).[59] Its water clouds are found lower in its atmosphere and are blocked by the ammonium upper clouds which reflect a brilliant golden yellow at the upper atmosphere giving a glowing angelic look. This angelic glow of gold may hint at Holst’s hint at the path towards heaven and the golden appeal of wisdom and enlightenment the true value of knowledge as the world seems to spin into decay and destruction.

Much was known about Saturn before Holst wrote a single note. In 1656 Giovanni Cassini first noticed a gap in the rings of A and B. In 1825, English physicist, Henry Kater, reported three gaps between the A ring.[60] In 1837, German astronomer, Johann Franz Encke, observed the dark band in Ring A and established it as the Encke division which was not fully seen clearly in a telescope until 1888 at the Lick Observatory viewed by American astronomer James Keeler.[61] In 1850, C ring was discovered using a more powerful telescope. Photographs of Saturn’s rings were taken and published before Holst even started work on The Planets, for in 1850, William and George Bond developed and perfected the technique of photography through a telescope and captured the narrow dark interior gaps of ring B of Saturn.[62] These gaps may represent the gaps and holes of lost memory brought on by old age in the movements’ theme of the bringer of old age.

Holst himself, considered Saturn to be the best movement of The Planets. The reason for this is because it was the most similar to Holst’s other musical works as it powerfully captured an expression of desolate and piercing emotion that was at first regulated and controlled but swelled up to a climax of intensity.[63] The piece reflected Holst usual style for his absolute immersion on mood that almost all technique vanishes as the themes are unpacked in a way that directly represents the decay towards old age.[64] Holst use of a metronome like tick that keeps time and marches on through time paints a clock work like existence as the final years march on to a slower rhythm. It all concludes with a struggle with the thought of death with the clanging of the bells but an eventual peaceful resignation that is sent off by a few strings holding an inverted E minor to send off in a mood of acceptance.[65]






Uranus: The Magician

The mysterious and puzzling attributes of the sideways planet meshes well with its Astrological description of the mysterious magician. Leo wrote that, ‘Uranus will incline its subjects towards the metaphysical and occult side of life, producing eccentric reactions.’ He warned that people associated with the God that, ‘sudden and unexpected events will enter into their lives, and they should always be prepared for the unexpected’.[66] The surprise and intrigue carries over to a planet that orbits the sun on its side. In fact, Uranus rotates on an axis that is inclined 97.9 degrees perpendicular to its orbit which is quite perplexing to astronomers.[67] When Uranus’ poles pointed at the sun during a solstice the sun would appear to never rise and set. Further in its orbital movement, the sun will approach the north celestial pole and the Sothern hemisphere of Uranus would experience 21 Earth years of darkness.[68] The seasons on the planet are very extreme much as the acts and tricks of a magician.

The planet Uranus has even more tricks up its sleeve. In the realm of magnetism and its oddly placed magnetic filed which is set off set from the center the planets center creating an odd shifted magnetic field. [69] The field the planet generates is 75% as strong as Earth’s and is tipped 60 degrees from the axis of rotation offset 30 percent from the planets radius.[70] The high-speed electrons spiraling along the magnetic field of this green planet produce synchrotron radio emissions that can be received and heard as sound from the emitted radio waves.[71]

Uranus also has rings but its rings are also sideways enveloping the equator of the planet. These mixed up attributes of this planet transfers perfectly to the whimsical mischief of Holst’s movement. Holst enlist the use of the xylophone and provokes carnival with angular incantation of blasting trumpets and trombones playing at fortissimo in the opening charade of the movement.[72] These attributes can attest to the bizarre trickery of the planet and the mythic magician alike. Where in both the physical solar system and in Holst musical suite Uranus follows the established and rule following Saturn with complete unexpected wonders. Holst purposely uses lyrical phrases to mock stanzas of Saturn and the two planets do the same.[73] Saturn as being the perfect normal ringed gaseous planet is mocked by Uranus which is sideways, with sideways rings, and a shifted magnetic field. These attributes in the music are played up as sixteen bars of tangs and noise to represent the Magician’s amateurish incompetence.[74]




Neptune the Mystic

Neptune the great blue mystical figure farthest from the sun as known to Holst finishes his triumphant work. In Roman mythology, Neptune is the God of water and the sea. The planets deep blue color influenced it inheriting the name of the Roman God of the sea. Leo expressed that ‘Neptune had a great influence over psychic tendencies, helping mediums and other sensitive people to transcend mundane distractions and ‘tune-in’ to vibrations from another world.’[75]

Newton was discovered using the basic laws of Newtonian physics using the three laws of motion and the law of gravity. It was noticed that the gravitational pull of an unknown planets could be causing the discrepancies in the movement of the planet Uranus.[76] In 1845, English astronomer, John Couch Adams, calculated the orbit and position of the new planet by applying the previously mentioned physics laws to the 2 minute arc variations of Uranus. He submitted it to an observatory but was not taken seriously. French astronomer Urbain Jean Le Verrier, made the same calculations and on September 23, 1846, Neptune was found after only thirty minutes of searching. Its position was only two degrees off from Adams earlier predicted position.[77] Both argued that they were the first to find Neptune but the fact of the matter was that Neptune was known to the world as a planet before Holst composed his work. Much later, in 1876, Le Verrier received a prestigious medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in Brittan in recognition of the value of his mathematical planetary tables.[78]

Neptune the great blue giant full of mystery and intrigue seems more mature from the oddball Uranus. The planet rotates on its axis normally. Thanks to the visit by the Voyager 2 spacecraft which passed Neptune in 1989, we know 4% the diameter of Uranus. Its Spectra analysis revealed its bluish-green color was a product of methane in its hydrogen saturated atmosphere.[79]

Neptune has rings, however they are very faint made of rocky dust. It possesses four narrow dark rings in all.[80] The outer ring is 78,000 miles wide but only 30 miles thick as it arcs around the planet.[81] Similar to Jupiter, Neptune has massive whirling storms in its atmosphere but they are of dark blue and white in color. The Great Dark Spot on Neptune is 8,000 miles (12,500 km) in diameter which is close to the same diameter of the Earth.[82]

Holst aim in writing Neptune was to capture in musical form the mystery and wonder of outer space since the planet Neptune was the farthest known planet from the sun.[83] To capture the absolute remoteness he used his dynamics playing the entire movement with pp so soft that the audience had to actively focus on the notes.[84] When analyzing the complete musical score of the movement, stark patterns stand out. For the most part throughout the whole movement, the majority of the interments are dormant with rests as it opens with only soft melodic runs from the woodwinds and quick quiet jabs on the two harps.[85] For an entire 8 bars the clarinets and horns hold a two note chord as the rest of the wind instruments remain silent adding a feeling of distant distain and mystery.[86] The long held out vibratos carry weight and resonate much like the swirly blue clouds whirling around the rotating gas planet. Holst chose to end in total silence and realized the power and impact silence and rests contribute to a piece of music. Holts centers Neptune’s movement on alternating chords of E minor and G# minor.[87] The minor key of the entire movement shrouds the piece in mystery to achieve that mystic quality. The music is purposely drawn out to flow in continuous that transports the listener to float through the expressions. The ending of Neptune is meant to fade off into space and time as and shimmering arpeggios dissolve into the repetition of the final two chords which are repeated until they fade out into they abyss.[88]

Early Astronomers

A collective number of discoveries and observations of early astronomers helped shape our knowledge and discovery of the solar system. There have been many revisions to the planetary model and new planets were added when discovered using mathematical calculations and astronomical observation. Many different astronomical planetary paradigms came into play until the model held today came into scientific acceptance. It started out as a geocentric model placing our Earth at the center with the planets, moon, and sun revolving around it in concentric circles. There was a model with the Earth still at the center but each planet belonging to a celestial sphere in which at one point was represented as the cosmic music of the spheres. The original geocentric model was expanded upon and became the Ptolemaic model of the universe which was still geocentric and involved uniform circular motion but included epicycles to explain anomalies of planetary retrograde motion.[89]

The Geocentric model was replaced by a heliocentric model with the Copernican Universe in 1514 which placed the sun at the center of the solar system and had the planets orbit around it in circles.[90] Another addition was that the velocities of orbit around the sun increased with each planet closer to the sun. Kepler modified the Copernican model by changing the planetary circular orbits to that of an ellipse. He also introduced three major laws that governed planetary motion.

With all this, the world entered into an age of modern astronomy. With the increased abilities of observational telescopes astronomers got increasingly detailed views and understanding of the planets. Using these equations, observations, and planetary models, the world had a very deep knowledge about planetary motion and our solar system before Holst even began work on The Planets.

Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) was the great classic astronomer-mathematician of antiquity of around AD 140. Ptolemy used mathematics to uphold Aristotle’s geocentric universe.[91] His model is flawed for in actuality, the planets do not track in perfect circles at a uniform speed which Ptolemy claimed.[92] It was in part useful for predicting the position of the planets but its mathematical flaws soon shown through as the system became more and more flawed as time went on and planets eventually were far off from an even remote region of the predictions. Planets were observed to act very odd as they performed retrograde where as time passed the planet would wonder in baffling ways. As time progressed one planet would move eastwards steadily and then it would appear to stop and move westward for a few months until it changed direction again and moved eastwards once again. To solve this problem of planetary retrograde, Ptolemy introduced the epicycle where as the planet orbited the sun in a big circle, called the deferent, and it also spun around in a smaller circle labeled an epicycle to explain the retrograde motion. This did not fix everything perfectly so Ptolemy kept adding small epicycles riding on top of larger epicycles and ending up with a complex mess of a system.[93]

Time went on with the Ptolemaic model of the universe as the dominate paradigm for almost 1,500 years and it took a series of careful observations and mathematical computing to figure out the flaws and force a radical paradigm shift. The shift started with a radical idea that took Earth out of its divine throne at the center of the universe and replaced it with the sun. Known as the Copernican Revolution started by Nicolaus Copernicus when in 1514, he proposed that the universe was heliocentric. Astonishingly, Copernicus could explain retrograde motion without the use of complex epicycles but he could not stray away from keeping uniform circular motion as anything else would violate Aristotle’s perfect elegant philosophy of the heavens.[94] Copernicaus’ treatise De revolutionibus orbium coelestum (On the revolution of the heavenly spheres) was published in 1543 the same year of his death to avoid church persecution. In it he set the sun at a fixed position in the center of the solar system.[95]

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) expanded the world’s knowledge of the planets through observation using his telescope. In 1610, Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius (The Sidereal Messenger) where he reported his thee major astronomical discovers.[96] His telescope observations allowed him to view detailed visual features of the planets at clarity never before possible. He recorded Mars’s reddish glow and noticed details of mountains and imperfections on the moon never before seen.[97]

He claimed, contrary to Ptolemaic belief, that the moon was imperfect with mountains of varying heights and valleys and creators. His second discovery stated that the Milky Way Galaxy was made up of countless stars including many stars too faint and distant to see.[98] Through the lens of his telescope, Galileo discovered four of Jupiter’s moons now known as the Galilean moons of Jupiter.[99] The fact that Jupiter had moons and yet still orbited the sun helped further disprove the Ptolemaic model for the Earth too had a moon and did not leave it behind as it orbited like Earth, Jupiter revolved around the sun while maintaining its satellites. This was the most profound of his three prominent discoveries published in that book. Galileo also observed phases with Venus similar to Earth’s moon.[100] This important observation further supported a Copernican heliocentric model.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) of Denmark meticulously observed the movements of Jupiter and Saturn. He discovered based on their movement that the earlier Ptolemaic and Copernican model were off in predicting planetary movement and alignments. Using sextants and quadrants for astronomical plotting he determined the precise time the planets passed the meridian. His famous clinching argument was that he believed that the earth’s motion had the same effect on comets as on planets and makes their motion retrograde when they are opposite from the sun.[101] The importance of comets is that they pass through the paths of multiple planets which disprove the separate entities of celestial spheres.[102] When he moved to Prague in 1599 he acquired German mathematician Johannes Kepler as his assistant and later named Kepler as his successor.[103]

Johannes Kepler’s access of Brahe’s years and years’ worth of observation data allowed for him to make a major scientific breakthrough. He created a planetary model where planets orbited the sun not in perfect circles, but in elliptical paths at calculable velocities. He set the size of the earth’s orbit and the length of the earth year as units as time and distance and used those standards to compute the parameters for the other planets. His model demonstrated that as a planet approached the sun and grew closer it speed up and as it tapered out farther away it slowed down.[104] Kepler demonstrated a relationship between the period of planetary revolution and its average distance from the sun.[105] Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion are the following: Law one, states that the orbits of the planets are ellipses with the sun at one focus. Law two, states that a line from a planet to the sun sweeps over equal areas in equal intervals of time. Law three states that a planet’s orbital period squared is proportional to its average distance from the sun cubed (P2y=a3AU).[106] Newton added to the equation by bringing the properties of gravitation into the equation.

Isaac Newton, (1643-1727) was an English physicist and astronomer who applied the works of Galileo and others to develop fundamental laws of motion and applied and identified the force of gravity. Newton invented calculus, created the three laws of motion, and discovered the principle of mutual gravitation.[107] Newton’s three laws of motion are the following: 1) A body continues at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by some net force. 2) The acceleration of a body is inversely proportional to its mass, directly proportional to the net force, and in the same direction of the net force. 3) To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.[108] Newton’s thee laws of motion were very important when applying them to planetary bodies, moons, and comets in motion in our solar system. Newton expanded upon Kepler’s third law equation for a planets period and narrowed it to specify an equation for a planets orbital velocity which is worked out as the circumference of its orbit divided by the orbital period. When this is plugged into the equation fro circular velocity we can find the mass of bodies based on its orbital motion which is all in units of meters, seconds, kilograms, and G which is the Gravitational constant.[109] The following is Newton’s equations:

Circular Velocity

Vc = √GM/r

Orbital Velocity

V = 2πr/P

P2 = (4π2/GM) r3

These equations proved vital to laying the groundwork for modern astronomy, and not only were applied to planets in our own solar system but later, to other planets found in newly discovered solar systems across the galaxy.

All these early astronomers helped change and develop our view and specific model of our solar system. There combined observations, methods, and calculations have provided a clear understanding on the behavior and attributes of the planets and their motion of the planetary bodies around the sun. With a solid framework in place, the scientific community was confident and ready when technology became available to visit the planets up close with the use of robot probes.






















Gustav Holst’s musical portrayal of the planets in our solar system really does on multiple levels provide an accurate mood and representation for each planet. While Holst based the moods for each movement on attributes of the Gods in astrology, many of the truly scientific data and astronomical properties of the planet can be classified by those astrological descriptions. When Holst wrote the planets, the scientific community had firmly adopted the heliocentric model of the solar system and it had been known that the planets had traveled in ellipses and there rotations could be accurately calculated taking in the account for the force of gravitation. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Newton’s laws of motion had been firmly accepted, applied, and cemented in the scientific community. The planet Neptune had been discovered by the use of mathematics and physics sixty eight years before Holst even wrote a note of The Planets.

Powerful telescopes had made detailed observations of many of the planets but the only way the world could visit these exotic planets was through Holst’s music. That is until we embarked on space exploration using rockets to send space probes to fly by, orbit, and land on these other worlds allowing us for a truly up close look at them and their mysteries. The images and scientific data collected and sent back by these probes constitutes the knowledge modern society has collected on these distant planets.

Through the orbital and surface images, we see worlds that seem to naturally fit to the musical riffs and melodies assigned to them by Holst. When we look across the red rocky surface of Mars, the distant mega volcanoes seem to bellow a remembrance of their glory just as the hammering timpani in Holst opening movement.[110] Venus’s brilliant golden yellow swirling clouds glistening and reflecting the suns rays reminisces the sweet soliloquy of flutes and harps.[111] The heavily cratered Mercury races around the sun at great speed as it rapidly rotates on its axis, just like the lightning quick staccato runs of the strings as the piccolo flutter in stretched spurts.[112] Jupiter’s swirling bands of colors and great red spot flow just as the horns belt out a jolly and triumphant melody.[113] The pale and brilliantly ringed Saturn slowly orbits the sun as the tubas and lower instruments keep a slow but methodical rhythm throughout the movement.[114] The green sideways Uranus holds many mysteries in its rotation, orbit, and composition and is portrayed by rapid key changes and abrupt alternating quarter notes and quarter notes presenting a festive of a level of mysterious carnival.[115] The distant blue Neptune mystifies us and its remoteness and majestic blue color is captured by a moving andante pace played at semper pianissimo. The runs of the woodwinds and the flutes are all but audible and the entire orchestra seems to fade away in the end as we drift off into space and into the unknown.




Beebe, Reta. Jupiter the Giant Planet. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.


Daily, Robert. Mercury. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.


Drake, Stillman. Galileo: Pioneer Scientist. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1990.


Elkins-Tanton, Linda T. The Solar System Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and the Outer Solar System. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006.


Elkins-Tanton, Linda T. The Solar System Jupiter and Saturn. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006.


Elkins-Tanton, Linda T. The Solar System Mars. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006.


Holst, Gustav. The Planets Suite for Large Orchestra Op. 32.  3rd Ed. edited by Imogen

Holst and Colin Matthews. London: Curwen Edition, Curwen & Sons, 1979. (Originally published Goodwin & Tabb, 1921.)


Holst, Imogen. The Music of Gustav Holst Third and Revised Edition and Holst’s Music Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.


Landau, Elaine. Saturn. New York: Franklin Watts, 1999.


Miller, Ron. Uranus and Neptune Worlds Beyond. Brookfield, Connecticut: Twenty-First Century Books, 2003.


Reston, James JR. Galileo a Life. Washington D.C.: Beard Books, 1994.


Seeds, Michael A. The Solar System Fourth Edition. Belmont, California: Thomas Learning Brooks/Cole, 2005.


Short, Michael. Gustav Holst: The Man and His Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.


Squyers, Steve. Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet. New York: Hyperion, 2005.


Standage, Tom. The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and the Pioneers of Planet Hunting. New York: Walker, 2000.


Sobel, Dava. The Planets. New York: Viking, 2005.


Thurston, Hugh. Early Astronomy. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994.


Taub, Liba Chaia. Ptolmy’s Universe: The natural Philosophical and Ethical Foundations of Ptolemy’s Astronomy. Chicago, Illinois: Open Court, 1993.


Voelkel. James R. Johannes Kepler and the New Astronomy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.


Vogt, Gregory L. Landscapes of Mars: A Visual Tour. Washington DC: Springer, 2008.










[1]Imogen Holst. The Music of Gustav Holst Third and Revised Edition and Holst’s Music Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.



[2] Short, 121.

[3] Robert Daily. Mercury. (New York: Franklin Watt, 1994.) , 10.

[4] Daily, 10.

[5] Seeds, 464.

[6] Seeds, 464.

[7]Imogen Holst. The Music of Gustav Holst Third and Revised Edition and Holst’s Music Reconsidered. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 33.

[8] Imogen Holst, 34.

[9] Imogen Holst, 34.

[10] Michael Short. Gustav Holst: The Man and His Music. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 122.

[11] Imogen Holst, 35.

[12] Robert Dailoy Mercury. (New York: Franklin Watts, 1994), 28.

[13] Michael A. Seeds. The Solar System Fourth Edition. (Belmont, California: Thomas Learning Brooks/Cole, 2005), 466.

[14] Seeds, 466.

[15] Imogen Holst, 34.

[16] Holst, 33.

[17] Seeds,473

[18] Seeds, 474.

[19] Seeds, 474.

[20] Seeds, 473.

[21] Imogen Holst, 34.

[22] Short, 126.

[23] Imogen Holst, 34.

[24] Seeds, 476

[25] Seeds, 477.

[26] Seeds, 478.

[27] Michael Short. Gustav Holst: The Man and His Music. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 4.



[28] Imegon Holst, 32.

[29] Imegon Holst, 32.

[30] Linda T. Elkins-Tanton.( The Solar System Mars. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006)., 112.

[31] Elkins-Tanton, 135.

[32] Elkins-Tanton, 149.

[33] Seeds, 485.

[34] Gregory L. Vogt. Landscapes of Mars: A Visual Tour. (Washington DC: Springer, 2008.),57.

[35] Vogt, 58

[36] Seeds, 495.

[37] Seeds,495.

[38] Elkiins-Tanton,  119.

[39] Reta Beebe. Jupiter the Giant Planet. (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997),7.

[40] Beebe, 9.

[41] Beebe, 8.

[42] Beebe, 8.

[43] Beebe, 23.

[44] Seeds, 504.

[45] Holst, 91.

[46] Linda T. Elkins-Tanton The Solar System Jupiter and Saturn. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006) ,33.

[47] Elkins-Tanton, 50.

[48] Seeds, 505.

[49] Seeds, 507.

[50] Seeds, 507.

[51] Imegon Holst, 159.

[52] Imegon Holst, 159.

[53] Short, 122.

[54] Elkins-Tanton, 105.

[55] Elkins-Tanton, 108.

[56] Imegon Holst, 36.

[57] Imegon Holst, 37.

[58] Short, 122.

[59] Elkins-Tanton, 119.

[60] Elkins-Tanton, 125.

[61] Elkins-Tanton, 125.

[62] Elkins-Tanton, 125.

[63] Short, 130.

[64] Imogen Holst, 36.

[65] Imegen Holst, 38.

[66] Short 123.

[67] Seeds, 538.

[68] Seeds 439.

[69] Seeds, 541

[70] Seeds, 541.

[71] Seeds, 542.

[72] Imegon Holst, 38.

[73] Imegon Holst, 38.

[74] Imegon Holst, 38.

[75] Short 123.

[76] Seeds, 549.

[77] Seeds, 549.

[78] Tom Standage. The Neptune Files: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and the Pioneers of Planet Hunters. (New York: Walker, 2000),167.

[79] Seeds, 549.

[80] Ron Miller. Uranus and Neptune Worlds Beyond. (Brookfield, Connecticut: Twenty-First Century Books, 2003),43.

[81] Miller, 44.

[82] Miller, 38.

[83] Short, 131.

[84] Short, 131.

[85] Holst, Gustav. The Planets Suite for Large Orchestra Op. 32.  3rd Ed. (edited by Imogen Holst and Colin Matthews. London: Curwen Edition, Curwen & Sons, 1979. Originally published Goodwin & Tabb, 1921),163

[86] Holst, 173-179.

[87] Imogen Holst, 40.

[88] Imogen Holst, 41.

[89] Seeds, 58.

[90] Seeds, 61.

[91] Liba Chaia Taub. Ptolmy’s Universe: The natural Philosophical and Ethical Foundations of Ptolemy’s Astronomy. (Chicago, Illinois: Open Court, 1993), 45.

[92] Seeds, 57.

[93] Seeds, 59.

[94] Seeds, 60.

[95] Hugh Thurston. Early Astronomy. (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994), 205.

[96] Seeds, 62.

[97] James Reston JR. Galileo a Life. (Washington D.C.: Beard Books, 1994), 65.

[98] Seeds, 62.

[99] Seeds, 62.

[100] Stillmanh Drake. Galileo: Pioneer Scientist. (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 137.

[101] Thurston, 211.

[102] Thurston, 211.

[103] Beebe, 10.

[104] Beebe, 11.

[105] Beebe, 11.

[106] Seeds, 71.

[107] Seeds, 77.

[108] Seeds, 80.

[109] Seeds, 88.

[110] Holst, 2.

[111] Holst, 33

[112] Holst, 64.

[113] Holst. 91.

[114] Holst, 120.

[115] Holst, 135.