Mars, the Bringer of War

headstrong and at times too forceful

Holst finished writing Mars early in 1914 before the First World War began but audiences at the premiere in 1920 might have heard its powerful combination of drums and brass instruments as a reference to the mechanised fighting of the Great War. We now know that Mars - known as the Red Planet - is covered with towering dormant volcanoes and craters. The surface is a very hostile environment so it is appropriate that Holst’s music is quite aggressive and threatening. The piece is driven by an insistent rhythm of five beats, repeated over and over again. It has a military feel but most military marches have four beats repeating. It’s hard to march to five if you have two legs.

Planet facts:

  • Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun.
  • It is named after the Roman god of war.
  • Mars is a terrestrial planet which means that, like Earth, it has a sold surface. You can easily see it from Earth and it looks red because of the iron oxide on the surface. It appears to have lots of frozen water at both poles but because the planet has so little atmosphere, water can’t stay liquid. Long ago there probably was liquid water on the planet’s surface because we can see the traces it left. We can also see volcanoes but they are not currently active.
  • Mars has two moons called Phobos and Deimos.
  • Mars orbits the Sun at an average distance of 228 million km, half as far again as the Earth, so human visitors would find it very cold. Although summers near the equator can be quite warm, the average temperature is 63 degrees Celsius below zero - similar to winters in Antarctica. The nights are also bitterly cold.
  • The first humans on Mars will have other problems to face. The air is 100 times thinner than on Earth, and mostly made up of carbon dioxide. Human explorers will have to wear oxygen masks and special suits every time they step outside their sealed homes.
  • Violent storms can whip up clouds of dust. Sometimes these spread rapidly around the entire planet, hiding the surface from view.

Suggested classroom activities

What things that you do every day produce rhythm?
Running or walking
Breathing and heartbeats (slow when you’re sitting, fast when you’re running)
Brushing teeth
Drumming or clicking fingers

What rhythms are around us?
Trains, road drills, ticking clocks, sirens…

How does rhythm affect us?
Film music in particular tries to make us feel different things.
Horror and suspense films build tension with rhythms which get faster and faster and then sometimes stop abruptly.
Feels like “my heart missed a beat”.

Rhythmic music is often made to be danced to.
Dance music rhythms are measured in BPM - beats per minute.
For some reason 128 BPM is the most popular speed for electronic dance music. Try it!
What effect do faster and slower speeds produce?
Listen to this metronome at 128 BPM

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.