Dramatic Vocalise Database

Gustav Holst (1874–1934)

The Planets, Op. 32 (1914–16)

1914, the year of Skryabin’s Prometheus and Ravel’s Daphnis in London, was also the year Gustav Holst began work on his suite for large orchestra, The Planets.

According to Raymond Head, the year Holst began looking at astrology “fairly closely,” the theosophist Alan Leo published The Art of Synthesis (1912), an innovative astrological book, which also includes an “Astro-Theosophical Glossary.” 1 Head believes that it is this book that inspired the composition of The Planets.

According to his own “List of Compositions,” in a small notebook with a page for every year from 1895 to 1933, Holst wrote Mars, Venus, and Jupiter in 1914; Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in 1915; and Mercury in 1916.3

By 1917, the full score of The Planets was finished. The work had to wait until the following year for a performance. According to Richard Greene:

On 22 September 1918, a mere week before the premiere, Holst wrote to his friend Edwin Evans, saying:

The first full public performance of The Planets was performed at Queen’s Hall by the London Symphony Orchestra, under Albert Coates, on 15 November 1920.6

A connection between theosophy, Holst, and Skryabin’s Prometheus was not lost on Holst’s and Vaughan Williams’s friend and music reviewer Edwin Evans:

The Planets includes wordless chorus in the final movement “Neptune, The Mystic.” Holst’s approach to such a chorus is new, for “Neptune” is the first strictly orchestral work that uses a “hidden” chorus. Hidden offstage chorus has been central to the idea of dramatic vocalization since its early appearance in Weber’s Der Freischütz onward, yet this was the first time the technique was applied to a symphonic and specifically non-dramatic context, not a ballet, nor opera.

When the chorus enters at the end of this final movement, the voices double instruments for quite some time. As the instruments slowly fade away the voices move into the foreground. Finally, they are left alone, a cappella, fading away into the distance.

Holst provides the following score direction on the first page of the movement itself:

Adrian Boult commented on these score directions, stating:

Holst’s daughter Imogen provides additional anecdotal information as to the use of the chorus in performances of “Neptune”:

Adrian Boult, conductor of the premiere, added to this information:

The manuscript score fails to contain a vowel for the chorus. Imogen Holst gives the following clue as to the proper choice:

Reviews of The Planets were mixed. Ernest Newman gave praise in his Sunday Times review of the first full public performance of the work:
Likewise, Alfred Kalisch recognized the importance of the wordless chorus in his review published by the Musical Times:
Yet not all of London was so easily impressed. An anonymous reviewer from The Sackbut eloquently expressed his reservations:
Richard Greene likewise highlights Holst’s debt to French music in his assessment of “Neptune”:
The novelty of Holst’s use of dramatic vocalization in The Planets was not lost on his friend and colleague Vaughan Williams. In a two-part article on Holst in Music & Letters in 1920, a few months before the first full public performance of The Planets, Vaughan Williams wrote the following:
The following year, 1921, Vaughan Williams composed a similar ending to his Pastoral Symphony.

Holst, The Planets, “Neptune,” mm. 97–101 18

(Nauman 2009, 158–64)



“Neptune” (complete)


1 Raymond Head, “Holst—Astrology and Modernism in ‘The Planets,’” Tempo 187 (1993): 18.

2 Ibid.

3 Imogen Holst, introduction to The Planets, op. 32, by Gustav Holst, in Collected Facsimile Edition of Manuscripts of the Published Works, vol. 3 (London: Faber Music, 1979), 9.

4 Richard Greene, Holst: The Planets (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 28–29.

5 Ibid., 12.

6 Coates conducted the premiere of Delius’s The Song of the High Hills on 26 February 1920.

7 Edwin Evans, “Modern British Composers VI.—Gustav Holst (Concluded),” Musical Times 60 (1919): 659.

8 Gustav Holst, The Planets. (New York: Dover, 2000), 162.

9 Sir Adrian Boult, “Interpreting ‘The Planets,’” Musical Times 111 (1970): 263.

10 Imogen Holst, introduction to The Planets, op. 32, 13.

11 Sir Adrian Boult, “Interpreting ‘The Planets,’” 263.

12 Imogen Holst, introduction to The Planets, op. 32, 13.

13 Ernest Newman, The Sunday Times (21 November 1920); quoted in Greene, Holst: The Planets, 33.

14 Alfred Kalisch, “London Concerts,” Musical Times 61 (1920): 821.

15 Quoted in Richard Greene, Holst: The Planets, 36.

16 Ibid., 23.

17 Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Gustav Holst,” Music & Letters 1 (1920): 190.

18 Ibid.