Gustav Holst: “Jupiter” from The Planets

Today is Saint Patrick’s day, probably the most senseless holiday ever invented. Think of it–an entire day devoted to drinking yourself into a paralytic stupor. It certainly does not celebrate the rich cultural legacy that the Emerald Isle has bequeathed to the world (Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, Yeats, etc.). Having seen a number of friends and families destroyed by alcoholism, however, I find it hard these days to approve of the St. Patrick’s day binge.

There’s something ironic about how, in one of the most Catholic countries in the the world, everyone condones this yearly dipsomaniacal ritual. Or perhaps the influence of the church explains it.

You know the story: Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. That act supposedly symbolizes his conversions of the animistic and pagan indigenous population to Christianity. Ireland still has a rich folk tradition, full of fairies, ogres, and leprechauns, so old Saint Pat must wonder just how his feast day turned into a dionysian orgy of drink.

On the other hand, maybe the Irish use Saint Patrick’s day as a kind of “backwards day,” to counteract the other 364 days of following the papist rules. This tension between the Apollonian (light, reason, spiritual and logical) and the Dionysian (dark, animalistic, orgiastic and creative) drives the creative and artistic according to Nietzsche. You can’t live inside your head all the time and be at war with your body without having to bust loose every so often.

Riding this dualistic seesaw seems an inefficient way of producing art, however. Over the past few years I’ve been more attracted to the Taoist way, in which one strive to find the acceptance and balance between mind and body. You need each but not to the exclusion of the other.

The ancient Romans took a different tack. They had gods for all human emotions, foibles, strengths which they subject to all of life’s strife and pleasure. Gustav Holst must have pined for those old ways when he created The Planets. It is one of those evergreen pieces you hear over and over on call in classical request shows. Begun in 1914, it has become a standard of the classical repertoire overshadowing most of his other work. Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity comes fourth in this suite of seven movements, one for each known planet of Holst’ day, excluding Earth.

Now each planet is named after a different Roman god, but Holst did not use the mythical character of the gods. Instead in each piece, he tried to capture the character trait associated in the planet according to astrological interpretation. In classical mythology, Jupiter is the thunderer who goes around cheating on his wife, Juno, with just about every other female goddess, mortal or even beast that moves. In astrology, on the other hand, Jupiter is the great benefactor and its large size is associated with a big heart.

Jupiter expresses pure joy and exuberance. This piece is akin to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in that you can almost picture happy peasants reaping a fall harvest, a village festival, or some such bucolic scene. The music begins with a flourish of cascading strings, quickly joined by the horns playing an energetic jig, punctuated by a glockenspiel. After a while a second two-beat theme starts in the horns accompanied by the bases and thuds of the tympani. Holst then plays these pieces off one another, running them sometimes parallel, sometimes intertwining them with one another. Eventually, it wells up into a lush, slow, grand, sweeping interlude that sounds a bit like one of those inspiring English hymns like Jerusalem. Lest he get too pompous, Holst brings back the first, two playful themes and then plays around with them almost in a fugue before turning almost nautical and then ending with a bright flourish.

This is almost the way you start to feel, when under the effects of alcohol you loosen the reigns a bit on your passions before you make a fool of yourself and wake up with a hang-over. How much better to get mind, body an soul all firing on 8 cylinders as Holst does with those three themes in Jupiter. This is the essence of true creativity and why I put this piece squarely in my Spring lineup.
Holst Biography

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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