Neptune: The Mystic


Neptune is the furthest planet from the sun and was the only planet to be discovered using mathematics instead of observation.  It is nearly identical to Uranus, except for its atmosphere, which has notable weather patterns.  It even had a Great Dark Spot, similar to the Great Red Spot on Jupiter.  However, unlike the Great Red Spot, Neptune’s spot forms and dissipates once every few years.  It has been observed with different sizes and shapes, and at one point was even the same size as the Earth.  Neptune’s extremely dynamic storm systems are also noteworthy considering its winds reach speeds of close to 600 meters per second (almost supersonic)! Like Uranus, Neptune’s season lasts approximately 40 years, resulting in cloud bands that regularly increase in size.  The planet is names after the Roman god of the sea, perfectly fitting for a planet that is composed primarily of ice and is blue in appearance.  An interesting fact to point out-Neptune will complete its first full orbit since its discovery on July 12, 2011, only four months from now.

The music for Neptune is very static and one-dimensional, which seems to contradict the mythological characteristic as god of the sea.  Gustav Holst was not aiming to write music that depicted the sea, however, because in his opinion Neptune should be portrayed as mystical and whimsical.  What sets Neptune apart from the other pieces in the movement is the use of actual voices at the end of the piece to provide a first-of-its-kind fade-out ending.  At first, the women’s chorus was not distinguishable from the instruments, but upon closer listening, it was easy to hear the faint sound of the voices.  The voices sounded quite haunting, and the fact that they blended in with the music so well and were “hidden” provides a perfect “mystical” experience.  Other than that though, nothing about this piece particularly stood out, and it was a weak ending for Holst’s most famous work.




Neptune has an unusual instrumentation, with the main body of the orchestra, which is usually the focus of the audience’s attention, playing second fiddle to the melodic percussion instruments, like the celesta – an instrument I had actually never seen before and had to go look up (and then realized it is used all over the place, but that every performance I have been involved in personally had been rewritten to substitute the glockenspiel for the rare and expensive celesta). Another unusual instrumentation is the choir that sneaks in at minute 4:15. It seems rather fitting that the last, furthest instruments would become the first in a piece about the furthest planet. The choice of featuring a choir is interesting as well, the voices sliding over each other, echoed by the slides on the harps, lending an ethereal, unanchored quality to the music. I remember reading somewhere that Holst originally intended for the choir to be hidden out of view of the audience. There would have been no hiding that there was a choir once they took over the movement, but his intention was that when they first snuck in, the audience would slowly become aware of a sound that seemed to emerge from nowhere, and for a moment before they were able to identify what it was, it would create the surreal experience of a disembodied presence within the symphony hall. We can only imagine that to an audience unaware this sleight of hand was coming, the unearthly chords the choir sings at the climax of their section must have only prolonged that moment of surreality, refusing to let the audience relinquish their instinctual adrenaline and terror to the recognition of something human and familiar. It must have been a very disturbing experience to the first audience on opening night.

Little is still known about Neptune. It’s thick hydrogen-rich atmosphere makes it difficult to see beyond the uppermost cloud layers. Like with the other Jovian planets, there is believed to be no surface to speak of, but a gradual increase in density from gas to liquid to molten heavy metals. Two fascinating aspects of Neptune are that its magnetic field seems to be produced not by the planet’s core, but by the rotation of the fluid mantle, and that it has the only moon in the solar system with a retrograde orbit. Scientists can do no more than speculate on explanations for either. Until technology improves and allows us to better evaluate the planet, Neptune will remain a mystery.