Holst’s Neptune and Wagner’s Lohengrin Prelude

I’ve just noticed something concerning Gustav Holst’s Planets suite.

You’ve probably heard that Holst did not mean planets in the sense of astronomy but rather to be more of a meditation on the astrological significance of each planet. His seven part suite of music introduces us to Mars, the Bringer of War, Venus the Bringer of Peace, Mercury, the Winged Messenger, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, Uranus, the Magician and Neptune, the Mystic.

Yes we know that “Mars the Bringer of War” has been imitated by film composers such as John Williams in Star Wars and an even more blatant knock-off in the battle music from Gladiator, composed by Hans Zimmer. You may expect to hear the stirring melody during Jupiter (the same motif heard early in the movement played quickly, but now done in a more thoughtful fashion), “I vow to thee my country” sung for Remembrance Day.

And yet I never hear anyone mention the thing that I would say is the most important thing Holst sought to do with this suite.

It hit me today as I thought about the upcoming Toronto Symphony concert this week, to be led by their Conductor Emeritus Peter Oundjian, as I remembered the recent TSO concert in October, when Gustavo Gimeno conducted Ligeti’s Atmosphères (a work with its own planetary & inter-planetary associations via Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey) followed by Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin.

It hit me suddenly as I wondered: what if instead of the Ligeti, Gimeno had juxtaposed Wagner with Holst? I was following the chain of association, whereby we think of that Ligeti piece leading us to Holst’s planets in space rather than in astrological charts.

But the Wagner and the Holst are both addressing spiritual concerns.

Perhaps it’s accidental, but I noticed a pattern in Holst’s Neptune that is such a close match to what we hear in the Lohengrin prelude as to resemble a parody. No I don’t mean to suggest that Holst is mocking Wagner. But in a sense he seems to be setting up the comparison with such a precise reboot of the template, perhaps inviting us to compare. That Holst only orchestrated the piece later might mean that the emulation of a pattern was not deliberate. And of course I’m likely reading something into it (perhaps after playing one too many hymns) rather than picking up something intentional.

Both pieces seem to be about the spirit, the deepest meanings of life. Lohengrin is an allegory about faith. A woman’s predicament –slandered by evil rivals—is that she can be saved by the perfect knight of her dream, provided that she doesn’t know his name. It’s a metaphor for Christian faith itself, that she is saved provided that she doesn’t demand proof of her saviour’s existence. And once she asks the fatal question in the story (asking his identity), her faith is now problematic and he will answer her question before leaving her, because she has doubted.

In the Lohengrin prelude we hear a perfect little tone-poem depicting the descent of grace in the vessel of the grail, coming down gradually from above. It’s first in the highest octaves, then restated lower, and finally given a big climactic statement by the full orchestra. Then we hear the theme associated with the tragic knowledge of Lohengrin’s identity: which is why he must leave.

Neptune is a different kind of tone-poem. Where Lohengrin tells a tale of certainty, Neptune is the mystic, the one asking questions. We begin both pieces with soft woodwinds. But where the angelic host in Lohengrin comes down softly but with no ambiguities, Neptune seems to be questioning, the harmony wandering as though unable to decide between adjacent tonalities, and in an irregular time-signature as well. The phrase is soft and delicate but harmonically ambiguous. As with Lohengrin’s main theme, Holst gives it to us three times, each time a bit bigger in volume and orchestration.

Instead of the doubting theme in Lohengrin, Neptune includes a transition introducing a wordless chorus sung by high voices. And now, in this movement featuring a tone of questioning, I think it’s appropriate to wonder, to question who or what the voices signify. Where Lohengrin is a closed tale with a precise ending of punishments and rewards, Neptune is the questioning mystic, presented to us in an atmosphere of wonderment.

I associate those voices with spirit itself, with life. We may be coming to the end of our lives with Saturn the Bringer of Old Age, terrified by Uranus, the Magician, but the gentle questioning of Neptune brings us into the presence of life itself. While the piece fades away, the voices go on. Is that bad? I don’t think so. I believe the voices going on and on are like spirit, a suggestion of eternal life. There is no closure as we get in Lohengrin, but it’s wonderfully ambiguous.

I’m looking forward to hearing it again at the TSO, who will play it November 9, 10 and 12.

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