Holst's The Planets Learning Resources
These resources are designed to support teachers and pupils to explore classical music; in particular, Holst’s The Planets and its out-of-this-world themes.
Please download the full resource pack for all the learning notes and ideas for classroom activities.
The Composer: Gustav Holst
Born: 1874 in Cheltenham
Died: 1934 in London, aged 59
Gustav Holst was a British composer living and working in London 100 years ago. He was fascinated by space, astrology, religion, meditation and vegetarianism – in many ways he was completely ahead of his time. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all professional musicians so it wasn't a surprise to his parents when he decided to learn the piano. Sadly an injury to his arm meant that he had to give up and so he took up composing and, because it made more money, he played trombone in theatre bands.
His biggest success came with his suite The Planets – a set of pieces for orchestra that describes the character of each planet. Holst didn't like the fame that this piece brought him. He wouldn't sign autographs, do interviews or accept awards and as the years went by he spent more and more time teaching. He inspired and taught many young composers.
Four movements from The Planets Suite, Op. 32
Holst was kept busy working as a teacher and it took him two years to write The Planets between 1914 and 1916. As he suffered from neuritis - an inflammation of the nerves in his right arm - Holst found it painful to write or play the piano for long periods. So, he would ask two of his colleagues to play the pieces for him, while he was still working on them, in a version for two pianos. When he was satisfied, they helped write out the full score for orchestra. Although various movements were performed from 1919 onwards, the first full public performance did not take place until 15 November 1920.
When Holst was composing The Planets a century ago, the best telescopes of the time were only just beginning to reveal the true nature of the planets so the pieces are not designed to reflect the physical characteristics of the planets, nor of the Greek and Roman gods after whom the planets were named. Instead, Holst was interested in their astrological characters.
Astrology is founded on the beliefs that where the planets are in the sky can affect how we feel here on Earth and that where the planets are at the moment you are born can have an effect on the sort of person you are. Each movement is a portrait of the particular aspect of personality attributed to that planet. Holst used to cast horoscopes for other people as a hobby. He was born on 21 September 1874 under the sign of Virgo, ruled by the planet Mercury.
Only eight planets were known when Holst wrote the piece though he didn’t include Earth, probably because it’s not astrologically significant. Pluto was discovered in 1930, four years before Holst died but he clearly didn’t feel obliged to add an extra movement for it. In 2000, the composer Colin Matthews did write a piece movement for Pluto to ‘complete’ the suite. Ironically, in 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet and so not a proper planet after all. We’re going to look at the four planets featured in the concert.
The words in italics below come from a book about astrology owned by Holst and are descriptions of the characteristics supposedly produced by that planet’s influence.
Click on the links below to learn more about the music, mythology, and science behind each planet.
more plodding and persevering than brilliant and active
eccentric, strange and erratic … a nervously organised temperament, quite out of the common
an abundance of life and vitality
The BBC included Mars in its first selection of Ten Pieces. Resources include a full performance, an introduction by Dick and Dom and a lesson plan.
The BBC Bitesize website also features Mars with a film presented by Katie Melua.
There are many performances of The Planets on YouTube and Spotify.
You can hear the extra movement that Colin Matthews wrote for Pluto here:
Pluto, the Renewer
The American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein got the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to make up a movement for Pluto on the spot in 1972:
Pluto the Unpredictable
NASA - the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States - has an abundance of material about the planets on their website, including text, stills and videos:
NASA has created 20” x 30” posters for each of the planets and other ‘tourist attractions’ in space which are free to download and print.
Explore Holst's The Planets
Download the full resource pack for more explorations of planetary science, ideas for classroom activities, and links to external resources.