I had to do some sleuthing to track down the details of the event I’m celebrating today. Although it was mentioned in a couple of sources, other sources seemed to contradict the information. However, we can justifiably celebrate this anniversary today without fear of error.
On February 27, 1919, Sir Adrian Boult conducted the first public performance of Gustav Holst’s symphonic suite The Planets although in that concert the work was not heard in its entirety. An earlier two-piano version of the work had been performed some time before that, and Boult also conducted a private unveiling of the orchestral version in 1918. The first public performance of the full work was in 1920. See why I had to check my facts?
The Planets is an ode to the mysteries of outer space, the music by turns martial, playful, tender, majestic, or oddly ethereal. A site devoted to Gustav Holst suggests that the work was at least somewhat the product of a mid-life crisis, and was influenced by Holst’s fascination with theosophy, a mystic view of ‘divine wisdom,’ and astrology, the study of how the alignment of stars and planets affects people’s lives.
The full work includes segments that pay tribute to the seven planets that were known and acknowledged at the time Holst wrote the suite, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which gave three performances of The Planets this January, offers excellent program notes to enhance one’s understanding of the somewhat unusual music. A blog titled The Classical Reviewer gave me information (as it will you) on the early performances of the work.
I have a personal connection to this work, as well. In early 1984 or 85 — my memory is a little hazy as to the date — I sang as part of a group of sixteen women hand-picked by Winnipeg musician Winnifred Sim, in the eerily mystical choral song that is an element of the Neptune segment of The Planets, as part of a performance of the entire suite by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra under the baton of maestro Kazuhiro Koizumi. It was an honor to be chosen to sing in this performance, a privilege that I will be grateful for throughout the rest of my life.
We sang backstage. Closed circuit television allowed Winnifred to see the maestro and to direct our singing in time with the orchestra. Since there are no words, and the melodies and countermelodies are interwoven through the orchestral part rather than being accompanied by the orchestra as one usually expects of a chorus/symphony melding, this was no mean feat.
There’s no recording of the performance I was a part of, but I would encourage you to find a recording of the entire suite and listen to it — and pay particular attention to the female choir in the last movement. Imagine I’m one of the second altos (despite being a mezzo soprano, my range is such that I am sometimes asked to sing alto).
This day in the arts certainly brings back memories of one of my stellar turns on this planet!