Fly Me to the Moon – April 27, 2019
by Monty Carter, Program Annotator
Gustav Holst (1874-1934):
The Planets, Suite for Large Orchestra, Op. 32 (1916)
Are you interested in astrology, but not quick to admit it? If so, you’re in pretty lofty company. A certain British music professor and composer kept mum about it to colleagues, but he loved casting horoscopes to friends. It was “my pet vice,” he said. And though they may keep mum about it, the pet vice of modern film score composers (at least the successful ones) is Gustav Holst’s solar system of tone poems, The Planets.
Gustavus Theodore von Holst was a sweet and insatiable spirit encased in physical frailty. Anxiety attacks that he seemed to inherit from his mother, who died when he was 8, brought him close to mental collapse several times in later years. His confidence as a kid was impeded by nearsightedness so severe that spectacles could only do so much, and his asthma was so bad that climbing a flight of stairs was a protracted activity at best. Gustav dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps as a concert pianist, but he suffered from acute neuritis that turned his right arm into “jelly overcharged with electricity,” as he put it. The condition ultimately shut the lid on piano and violin, but he had better luck with the trombone, which he was able to make his gigging instrument.
Despite his many ailments, Gustav was a born rambler whose long, quick strides you’d have to get goin’ to keep pace with. At the Royal College of Music in London, where he won an open scholarship for composition, he walked or cycled all over town with his trombone strapped over his back. A firmly frugal young man, he wasn’t into smoking, drinking, or eating meat. He was an extroverted introvert who loved a good laugh and walks-&-talks along the riverside with his lifelong friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Holst was a gifted choral director and a beautifully open palette for his own music’s creation. Whatever interested him drew forth music. Deeply engaged in Hindu philosophy as a young adult, he taught himself Sanskrit for the purpose of composing hymns from the Rigveda, the most ancient scripture in the world, leading to his profoundly moving chamber opera, Savitri.
After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Holst was moved to compose a setting of Walt Whitman’s Dirge for Two Veterans (as was Vaughan Williams). This was also the time Holst’s fascination with astrology started to emit energy. “The character of each planet suggested lots to me,” he wrote. And he definitely returned the favor.
Here’s how he described the movements of the suite for the 1920 public premier: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no program music [rendering a specific narrative], neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it be used in the broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also the more ceremonial type of rejoicing associated with religions or national festivals. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment. Mercury is the symbol of mind.”
Mars, the Bringer of War. Petrifying approach, fearsome onslaught and relentless ferocity are all cunningly conveyed by Holst’s brilliant orchestration. But do you know which aspect of war Holst most wished to express, according to the British conductor Sir Adrian Boult? Its stupidity.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace. Oh BRING it, sweet flutes, harps and celesta!
Mercury, the Winged Messenger. As the composer mentioned, Mercury is the symbol of mind, “the thinker” in astrology. Where will its thoughts take us? Is it mentally stable … or, um, mercurial?
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. We derive our word “jovial” from the name of this most massive planet. Here Holst’s expansive high spirits are otherworldy indeed.
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age. The passage of time … so very slow; so very fleeting. We cannot keep the bells from tolling. But dare we hope for serenity? Yes. Yes. This was Holst’s favorite movement.
Uranus, the Magician. Rude, galumphing, fickle and flighty. Then poof! it’s gone. But for how long?
Neptune, the Mystic. How appropriate for the suite to conclude with the God of the Sea, illusion and confusion, connection with other worlds. The two most frequently used words to describe Neptune are “mystic receptivity.” And how perfectly they describe Gustav Holst.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918):
Clair de lune (1905), orchestrated by André Caplet
The words un nouveau paysage (“a new landscape”) could be used to describe both the music of Claude Debussy and the visual arts with which he is invariably associated. A new landscape truly appeared in France in the 1860’s: art that sought to convey an impression of the moment – not a specific thing, but rather one’s experience of it. In painting, strokes that are subtle and narrow but clearly visible depict aspects of light. In music, structure and proportionate melody take a back seat to open harmony, with the ‘brush strokes’ taken from the whole-tone scale.
In Paul Verlaine’s 1869 poem, Clair de lune (“light of the moon”), your soul is a landscape of grand masquerades and dancers in all disguises promenading in the still, sad and lovely moonlight. The partiers are almost sad as they celebrate life and love … it’s as if they don’t quite believe their own happiness. The sound of their song blends with the light of the moon.
Debussy’s Clair de lune is named after that poem. It’s the third of four movements in his solo piano work, Suite Bergamasque. A reference to its mention in the poem, the word refers both to the town of Bergamo, Italy, and the ‘Bergamo-esque’ folk music attributed to it.
Since his lifetime, Claude Debussy (in prickly pairing with Maurice Ravel) has been regarded as the leader of French Impressionism. (Neither composer cared for the designation; Ravel was more than pleased to concede it to his former mentor, who couldn’t stand it.) Debussy’s music marked a turning point from the Romantic style that dominated the 19th century: the soaring, searing, melodic/harmonic gyrations between single thematic thrusts and contrapuntal structures. He was adamant about being out of the box and vehemently opposed to being put in another. When asked what rules of harmony his music followed, Debussy answered in two words: Mon plaisir!
We should be constantly reminding ourselves that the beauty of a work of art is something that will always remain mysterious; that is to say one can never find out exactly “how it is done.” At all costs let us preserve this element of magic peculiar to music. By its very nature music is more likely to contain something of the magical than any other art.
– Claude Debussy, translated by Roger Nichols.
John Williams (b. 1932):
Star Wars film score selections:
The Rebellion is Reborn from The Last Jedi (2017)
Scherzo for X-Wings • The Jedi Steps • Finale
from The Force Awakens (2015)
This evening we’ve communed with the Planets, basked in the moonlight, and orbited Kathleen Holeman. Now for a night at the [space] opera!
You remember John Williams, right? He created that unforgettable incidental music featured in the opening season of Gilligan’s Island. Truly remarkable! Yeah, and that flick about a super-big fish with scary chompers. And oh right, more than one hundred others.
In a career spanning over sixty years, composer and conductor John Towner Williams has personified protagonists and ignited imaginations in a great many of your favorite movies, seven of which are preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, with the official designation of “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” – which is as true of the film scores as it is of the films.
Williams is a big reason why the term “film score” is more prevalent today than “background music.” He has been instrumental, as it were, in George Lucas’s creation of a Force to be reckoned with, and all of its subsequent adventures. The second group of the Star Wars “Skywalker Saga” came 16 years after the first, and the third started 10 years after the second. The ninth movie, coming out in 33 weeks, 4 days, and 23 hours, will be John Williams’s Bantha ballad – his Shyrack chanty – his Wookie warble – his SWAN SONG for the series.
In the meantime, enjoy our Rebel rousing, fried X-Wings at the Dark Side diner, and triumphant Rey of hope!
Kathleen Holeman has been a working jazz vocalist, pianist and trombonist in the greater Kansas City area and the Ozarks for over 35 years, performing with many great artists such as Gary Foster, Louie Bellson, Kim Park, and the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. She has also performed in Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi, Indiana and Georgia for festivals, series and private events. She has directed the Ray Alburn Big Band, co-directs the St. Joseph Big Band, and leads smaller combos in clubs, restaurants and private venues. She has been a judge at several jazz competitions, including the Iowa Vocal Jazz Championship, MWSU, NWMSU and 18th & Vine jazz festivals.