The idea for The Planets was born whilst the English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was on holiday in Majorca in 1913. At that time Holst was keen to produce a large-scale symphonic piece and when his friend, Clifford Bax, introduced Holst to astrology he had his subject matter.
He finished the first sketch of Mars at the outbreak of the First World War and completed the suite of what Holst called ‘mood pictures’ in 1916. The suite has seven movements, each named after a planet and its corresponding astrological character: Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, the Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, the Magician; and Neptune, the Mystic.
Prior to its first complete public performance in 1920 all but one of the suite’s individual movements had been given public airings, despite Holst’s opposition to part-performances – and especially those that finished off with the upbeat Jupiter because, he explained, “in the real world, the end is not happy at all”.
The Planets became a huge success and remains enduringly popular and influential. Holst experienced its success but never enjoyed the limelight. He also complained later in life that its popularity had completely overshadowed his other – better – creations.