Classical Spook-a-day #12: October 18th, 2014
"Neptune, the Mystic" from The Planets (1914-16) by Gustav Holst
Gustav Holst set out to write an orchestral suite based on the planets of our solar system in 1914. He ended up writing seven movements - Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. He gave each movement a subtitle, based on their astrological symbols.
Holst achieves an eerie, unearthly sound in “Neptune” through the use of unusual meter - the entire movement is in 5/4 time, unlike most Western music, which is in 4/4 or 3/4 - as well as etherial harmonies and distant sounds. The score directs that the entire orchestra is to play “sempre pianissimo,” or always very quietly. Additionally, Holst makes use of some unusual instruments – a bass flute, a bass oboe, and a celesta. The bass flute is an uncommon instrument, an octave lower than a normal (concert) flute; it can be heard in unison with concert flutes at the very opening of the movement. The bass oboe also sounds an octave lower than its “normal” counterpart, the (soprano) oboe. Its sound approaches that of a bassoon, but it has a much brighter tone. Next, the celesta: it’s a small keyboard instrument, and works similarly to a piano. Unlike a piano, the hammers do not strike strings, but rather metal plates, which ring somewhat like a bell. The celesta produces a “twinkly” sound, which Holst takes full advantage of.
Finally, Holst also uses a 3-part women’s chorus, and makes a special note in the score: “The Chorus is to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed. The Chorus, the door, and any Sub-Conductors that may be found necessary are to be well screened from the audience.” Thus, when the chorus first enters, the audience has no idea where the sound is coming from; they simply hear a eerie, otherworldly singing that comes out of nowhere, and, at the very end, fades out slowly after all else is gone. This is actually one of the earliest examples of a fade-out in music, and one of the few examples outside of popular music.