7 March 2011


At the time of Holst’s composition, very little information was known about the planet Neptune.  Apparently, Holst was less attracted by the mythology associated with the planet’s namesake, and instead chose to incorporate themes reminiscent of the planet’s astrology.  Had Holst taken Neptune the Roman god as his inspiration, the piece might have captured the violent and tempestuous nature of the sea.

Perhaps due to the lack of knowledge at the time, astronomers have associated the planet with dreams and spirituality.  In Holst’s day, Neptune stood at the edge of the solar system, the last entity before the empty vastness of space.  It is therefore not surprising that we should have attributed to the planet such otherworldly qualities.

Neptune, the Mystic, needs little interpretation.  Holst gives us a melody in the beginning and in between other ethereal sections of noise at 3:30 and again at 5:40, but always against a backdrop of ambient noise which seems to prevent us from fully latching onto the melody.  Holst’s intentional lack of percussion causes the movement to move like a wisp of smoke.  Gone are the marching melodies of Mars and Jupiter; Neptune seems not to move, it is as if we are passing it by.  The energy builds from a small flute strain and then recedes into an eerie nothingness as the choral voices fade to black.  There is no real drama here.  Somehow, this seems an appropriate theme for a place which, at Holst’s time, is practically untouched and unimaginable by human minds.  Unsurprisingly, I find strong parallels between Holst’s music, and the music of those composing for films which take place in deep space.

I have previously remarked that Holst’s music is not in keeping with the actual characteristics of the planets themselves.  I would make the same claim regarding Neptune, but as an observation and not a complaint.  Holst has never strayed far from the astronomical character of the planets, and he certainly cannot be blamed for the unavailability of factual knowledge about Neptune.  Besides, it would require a stretch of creativity and inventiveness to compose a piece for Neptune and Uranus based on the planets’ physical characteristics and yet which maintained uniqueness and individuality.  The planets are too similar.  Thus, even a modern composer benefitted by up to date observations might take recourse to the distinct astrology.