Music can come via many paths, a bumblebee, a storm, a wind or a battle are the motivations for works of artistic endeavour that are rightfully identified as works of greatness. It is not difficult to understand why as we are programmed in the womb to listen and respond. The first thing the unborn hear is the churning of their mother’s heart and the squish, squirt and bubble of the onomatopoeic body that surround the placenta. Indeed, even mum’s voice is keyed onto the foetal psyche as are the voices of loved ones and friends. A child already has a musically acquired community at birth that resonates with it and contributes in no small measure to its wellbeing.
Because of this, many composers have sought with purpose, or gained via serendipity, inspiration from the world around them. Some have attempted to map with music the influences of philosophy, politics or superstition on the human condition. Gustav Holst, writing in the first few years of World War One, did this with The Planets Opus 32. His inspiration was not astronomical but astrological. Medically unfit for military duty he continued teaching and composing and by late 1918 The Planets was performed before a select group of some 250 people. Finally it was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra in November of 1920.
Holst’s motivations could have been many. The source material was astrological and perhaps he had the sad desire to, with music as a focus and an aid or perhaps just a spiritual analgesic, try and divine the future of his world that had been torn apart by a series of horrors from 1914 to 1920. It was a six year period that included the Great War, the dissolution of empires, the communist revolution in Russia, starvation in Germany and finally the Spanish influenza epidemic. The wealth of a century burned up and blasted and perhaps forty million souls snatched from their mortal coils.
Holst dug deep into those womb developed reflexes to produce a work of astounding range, complexity and beauty that has stood the test of time. Many films and television shows use elements of The Planets as their musical score and today, as they did 100 years ago, those notes of breathless beauty help not only to make the pedestrian become wonderful, the common extraordinary and the normal seem interesting but also grant us leave to believe in a future that might be better than the past.
Today technology gives us a chance to compare the imagination of a man urging artistic beauty onto the ugliness of a world destroying itself, with the reality of the voices from those worlds themselves. You can do it quite easily yourself. The actual sounds that real planets generate can be heard, for all who are interested, on YouTube. These actual planet sounds make renderings in the imagination that vary vastly from the composer Holst. Yes, the planets speak and mighty are their voices.
The Sun itself, rather aptly drones melodically like a vast engine. You might hear a child try and produce the same sounds in play. Mercury’s cry seems to be made of long pipes and rushing winds fighting for entry while Venus courts not the notes of love but huge tubular bells, almost Tibetan in their frequency, that rouse the innate fears of the storm. Venus is like a mountain speaking.
Our own Earth is rushing, stratospheric air and all growls and deep intonations that render views of primitive night and primal fear. Then there is Mars. For Holst, so influenced by his time, the war god came on with unstoppable crescendo, building and building with orchestral force. The real Mars is surprisingly like wind on a sand dune punctuated by vast doors scraped and slammed shut in the far distance.
Jupiter boasts a constant industrial growl quite unlike Hosts famous depiction but the real unearthliness arrives with Saturn. To Holst, Saturn the Bringer of Old Age, is presented as stately, mature and magnificent but the real Saturn produces music that would not be out of place in the film score for Forbidden Planet. Those vast rings interacting with particles from the Sun and the planet’s stormy clouds cast out intense and quite eerie radio traffic.
Finally there in Uranus and Neptune. Uranus ‘The Magician’, is for Holst, full of brass instruments and rolling power, while Neptune ‘The Mystic’, is presented in a way that engages the imagination in eerie wonder, perhaps the most science-fiction friendly of Holst’s pieces. The real planets speak with different notes on their tongues.
Uranus hisses like a giant version of Mars, suss-sussing an extended call from a breathy god. Neptune is a maker of distant sounds. Like a motor operated behind a wall, over a hill and across a field its plaintive cry seems ever far off, as it should be for the last great world in our solar system that is four and a half billion kilometres from the Sun with an orbit that lasts 165 years.
Holst used what he knew to make a marvellous musical creation. Whatever elements of his life 100 years ago were present at the time of composition, they were focussed by the innate and inborn lens of his creativity made musical by the training all of us receive in the womb and which is honed and crafted by our time as children. No, his Planets were not like the real planets, he didn’t intend them to be, nor could anyone else possibly guess what fabulous sound the universe converses with. Like this surprise we could never have guessed the fabulous noise of our mother’s wombs yet it is this fabulous sound that introduces us to rhythm, meter, pitch and all the elements we deploy in music, to make fabulous sound in our lives.
Now that we can hear the voices of the planets, the voices of the stars and indeed, the three degrees kelvin hiss that is the microwave ash from the Big Bang itself, just think of what wonders of musical composition these alien voices might lead us to. Just think what wonders we might sing into existence if we only but listen and sing back.
Listen to these sounds yourself and make your own impressions and ideas about the music our universe and indeed our planets offer.