CHID 496


Response Paper 1


The interplay between the characteristics of Mars as the God of War, the planet, and Holst’s composition is astounding, even if the seeming connections come from retrospection. Even though Holst had never experienced mechanized war prior to his construction of Mars, the piece still sounds representative of modern warfare, and long before scientists understood the finer complexities of the planet Mars, the warlike connections to its environment are uncanny. I do not know if Holst was prescient or was simply lucky but I believe that Mars, more than any other composition on The Planets reflects or defines our understanding of war and our celestial neighbor.

It is fascinating to think of the similarities, at least in a poetic sense, between Mars and war. The Greeks initially associated Ares, the God of War with the fourth planet due to its blood red color. This characteristic relationship spread in several ways, one being the connected belief between the “Canals” on Mars, which was thought to prove the existence of an intelligent population, and that the population would be war-like. Since the mistranslation of “canali” in 1877, human interest in life on Mars has grown almost ceaselessly, even though we now know there are no little green men living on its surface. H.G. Wells wrote the classic War of the Worlds in 1898, in which England and presumably the rest of the world, is invaded by a powerful Martian army that nearly conquers Earth. Though less influential to our monstrous vision of Mars, though still evidential of our collective fascination of the planet, is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoon series of novels, the first being published in 1917. The series is heavily influenced by Percival Lowell’s ideas about the landscape of Mars, specifically a race of Martians that controls the canal system on the surface. We are all familiar with the classic broadcast of the Mercury Theaters adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which could be argued as the pinnacle of our obsession. This broadcast tapped into the rich fear of our bloodthirsty neighbors and the reaction fueled the alien invasion movies of the 1950’s and 60’s, which were also inherently tied to another war, the Cold War.

Wells’ depiction of a death ray, a weapon on incalculable destruction, foresaw the birth of other weapons of mass destruction, most popularly the nuclear bomb. An incredible relationship between actual war on Earth, the fictional war between Earth and Mars and the true nature of Mars can be created by this concept of a death ray and in turn nuclear weapons. As stated in Seeds’ chapter on Mars, if you were to be suddenly exposed to the surface of Mars without protection your bodies heat could cause your bodily fluids to boil due to the lack of atmospheric pressure. It would not be a long process. In addition to your insides melting, Mars has almost no oxygen, so you would asphyxiate immediately too. I find this dangerous atmosphere to be beautifully analogous to war. Another feature of Mars that relates to war that Holst was unaware of is the massive volcano Olympus Mons. I cannot think of a better metaphor for a destructive cannon than the biggest volcano in the Solar System. Listening to Mars, I find the most prominent feature is the concussive blasts of what I think might be the bassoons (I don’t know classical instruments that well), and how much that sounds like explosions both natural, like a volcano, and manmade, like cannons or missile impacts. Holst may not have known of the extreme lethal nature of future wars or of the surface of Mars, but he could not have made a stronger connection between the two if he had wanted to.

We are not finished with Mars. This past year has brought us to an exciting precipice in history and exploration. On April 15th, 2010, President Obama set a long reaching goal to visit Mars within the next twenty years. This feat may not come to fruition, but it is evidence that we still feel the need to connect with the heavens. Holst has given us an audio track to inspire our imagination and drive our spirits to the stars.