CHID 496

7 February 2011


For the most part, the movement Mercury is a pithy light-hearted piece of music.  Although some sober moments do occur, they exist fleetingly for a few seconds, or are underlined by a somewhat cartoonish woodwinds section.  But this fits with the traditional character of the Roman god Mercury.

Mercury, as a messenger, was privy to the important goings on of sweet Venus, violent Mars, and scheming Pluto.  But the god himself has virtually no impact on events whatsoever.  The character of Mercury allowed the messenger to witness the greatest and saddest events, and yet continue on unphased.  Holst must have envisioned Mercury as something like an idealized child who cannot be penetrated by the gravity of any action.  The piece itself is short and cannot sit still.  Holst addresses and acknowledges more serious themes, particularly with the first violin solo around 1:05, and again at 2:00 where the energy recedes, but in both instances, the effect is quickly over.  Holst soon brings in the rest of the orchestra with a jumping and staccato accompaniment, or mutates the theme into some swirling and unrestrained figure.

However, I am surprised at the lack of correspondence between the music and its physical counterpart.  The violence of the movement Mars captured the planet’s exaggerated features.  Even the clouds of Venus were fairly represented by sweet and fragile strains.  But the only quality of the planet Mercury which I feel was intentionally reproduced by the music was the planet’s swiftness of rotation around the sun.  Knowing about the planet’s absolutely desolate and lifeless nature, I find it difficult to accept Holst’s music as a representation of the planet.  The planet is almost solid iron, it is ugly to behold, and it strikes me as sterile.  The planet is so without internal movement that a collision on one side will vibrate the whole planet, creating geological features on the opposing side.  I imagine the planet ringing like a bell or some other instrument.

Were I to compose a modern rendition of Mercury, I would make the music mechanical and mathematical, eliminating as many organic qualities as possible.  Mercury would then seem something like an automaton, moving along and performing its duty without any life or soul.  But I realize that my musical interpretation of the planet is extremely biased thanks to the benefit of astronomical data unavailable to Holst.