Gustav Holst

Born - Sep 21, 1874   |   Died - May 23, 1934   |   Genres - Music, Comedy Drama, Film, TV & Radio, Culture & Society

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Biography by "Blue" Gene Tyranny

With one exception, the sole composition quoted in film and television productions from this popular, eccentric, and major British composer has been his spectacular impressionistic suite The Planets, Op. 32 (1914-1916) for large orchestra and choir. Various movements from this work have been used in The Bells (1931), Birth of a Robot (1936), Existió otra humanidad (1977), Fei taugh mo neuih (1977) (aka The Witch With Flying Head,) Shi di chu ma (1980) (aka The Young Master), The Right Stuff (1983), Voyage to the Outer Planets and Beyond (1986), the film about neo-Nazis Blood in the Face (1991), and an uncredited use in Trinity and Beyond (1995) (aka The Atomic Bomb Movie).

Director and writer Barbara Willis Sweete's The Planets, made for television in 1994, re-arranges the sequence of the movements in Holst's original suite to create a rich narrative that combines dance, ice skating, and underwater ballet. The film opens with Neptune, the Mystic (originally the seventh and last movement) underscoring a creation ritual that gives birth to a proto-couple in an underwater ballet. Uranus, the Magician (originally movement six) continues the conjuring on the skating surface. Venus, the Bringer of Peace (originally movement two) begins as a dance solo for Venus, clad in cream and light brown colors, who calls forth a line of skaters in icy blue clothes who move as if sailing across clouds under a starry sky. The couple then skate to the sensual, yet somewhat plaintive music. Mercury, the Winged Messenger (originally movement three) springs forth, skating to lilting music in fast triplets. His arms playfully sway, he imitates marching, and spins. The attendant gods and goddesses are amused by his antics. Mars, the Bringer of War (originally the first movement), danced to an insistent 5/4 rhythm, opens with gymnastic movements and floor patterns which call forth a string of faceless, helmeted skaters giving Fascist salutes. The couple lose themselves in the expression of an intrapersonal struggle. Another mass of skaters slice through each other's pathways in a complex matrix of intersections. As the music concludes, the marchers invade and destroy part of the Olympian temple. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age is retitled Saturn, the Bringer of Life (originally movement five) in Barbara Sweete's script as this god re-animates the victims of the rampage with motions that seem to stir the breath of earthly winds. To beautiful whole-tone chords and tubular bells, the dead awake. After a solo of fantastic turns, leaps, and even a somersault, the last section, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity (originally movement four), provides a glorious, celebratory finale for all the dancers, skaters, and water figures.

Ken Russell's made-for-television version of The Planets (1983) associates the kinetic movements of Holst's score through powerful and evocative imagery of macroscopic and microscopic events in the universe, the systems of planets, daily life, historical events and conflicts, the growing of flowers, the Brownian motion of tiny bodies, and blood flow. Russell's sensitivity to the subtleties of the music enables this cornucopia to go beyond mere collage and to create enriching new associative interplay and meaning. The "sole exception" referred to earlier was the Julie Andrews: The Sound of Christmas (1987) television special which featured a moving performance of the composer's soulful carol "In the Bleak Midwinter". Many of Holst's other mystical/religious works have yet to be explored in film, such as his The Hymn of Jesus, Op. 37.