Blessay 25: Planetary States

Holst’s The Planets suite is an astrological not an astronomical conception of the planets. It’s concerned with planetary psychic influences and mental states. No Earth, Moon or Sun was composed by Holst. Pluto was discovered after The Planets had been composed and shortly before Holst’s death.

In 2000 Colin Mathews wrote an ‘appendix’ to The Planets. His Pluto, the renewer, has been recorded on cd to follow on, without a break, before the last movement Neptune, the mystic, fades away. At just under seven minutes, Mathews piece conveys solar winds and comets, nearing the edge of our solar system. At mid-point the orchestra bursts out, with a faintly Mars-like rhythm in the background, that’s followed by a wordless female chorus.

Pluto is certainly effective but somewhat artistically redundant. Once Holst’s own ethereal writing, for the chorus, eventually dissolves into nothingness, only silence is required. Of course, silence did follow Monday night’s performance of The Planets played by the BBC Philharmonic and conducted by Susanna Malkki.

However before the end of Neptune a small boy cried out in the stalls of the Albert Hall. The toddler was removed by his father. His twenty-second outburst, more moans than crying, at first annoyed me as I stood in the Proms arena. Then I let it become an unintended extra sound-effect. Life and art intertwined. A disturbed, little boy had heard the siren call to enter a musical world now fading into nothingness.

That child’s intervention sent my mind spinning of, not into outer space, but associations. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey employs Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra to accompany a gigantic image of a star-child. I imagined Kubrick’s cinematic foetus, of hope or despair, becoming a newly born, yet upset child. A tiny, earth-bound being resisting the pull of the womb, space and the void.

On the train going home, some famous lines from Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam came to mind.

‘So runs my dream: but what am I ?/ An infant crying in the night / An infant crying for the light / And with no language but a cry.’

A primal fear of abandonment. Lost in Space. Did the little boy unconsciously hear something of the tone of his mother’s voice in the female space sirens? That he feared she might be leaving him?

Ruminating a little more, on the idea of abandonment, Becket’s haunting play Breath, surfaced. The curtain opens on a stage full of rubbish. We hear two brief and faint baby cries. The play’s ‘action’ lasts thirty five seconds. Then the curtain falls. In his stage directions Beckett says of the rubbish that there are to be ‘No verticals, all scattered and lying.’ (Assuming that the desolation of Becket’s horizontal mess, might be compromised by anything vertical, suggesting an upright thing – some flicker of hope?) Whilst the stage cry is the ‘Instant of recorded vagitus.’ and that it is important ‘that two cries be identical, switching on and off strictly synchronised light and breath.’

Vagitus is the Latin word for ‘the crying of a new-born baby.’ It is rarely used now. Vagit is a 17th Century word meaning, ‘A cry, lamentation or wail.’ Whereas Vagitate meant ‘To roam, or travel.’ If you link Vagina with Vagitus and Vagitate, we have Becket’s view that birth is a sad business. And that unhappiness accompanies our journey through life, which is so fleeting, to the finality of death. As Beckett’s poem, My Way says ‘and live the space of a door that opens and shuts.’ (That door metaphor resonating for me with Holst’s instructions that the women’s chorus be invisible and far away from the orchestra. And that the stage door be closed on the singers as the voices finally drift away.)

Years ago I had a small amount of Psilocybin mushrooms swallowed down with a cup of tea. Then I listened to a recording of The Planets. Very little happened until Saturn, the bringer of old age movement. At that point I slumped in my armchair feeling lethargic and experienced my body shrinking. During Uranus, the magician I twitched and turned trying to shake of my tiredness. This was a feeble struggle. I became smaller and smaller. Somehow I got up from my chair only to fall to the floor. Now, Neptune, the mystic was calling to me. I shut my eyes, which were streaming with tears, assumed a foetal position on the carpet, and fell asleep. It was a short yet blissful sleep. I awoke, full size again, feeling wonderfully content.

Throughout my planetary ‘out of body’ experience I wasn’t  afraid. Perhaps a little apprehensive during Uranus. But I realised my mind and body had to be released. It was instinctual and inevitable that I move on in my induced state of quasi death and transfiguration.

Beckett had a touch of genius in his play Ohio Impromptu. It’s sole actor says, ‘Thoughts, no, not thoughts. Profounds of mind. Buried in who knows what profound of mind. Of mindlessness.’ Adding ‘s’ to profound makes for a curious plurality and creates an odd non-existent noun. A breathtakingly brilliant touch.

If friends go on too much about how miserable their life is I sympathetically tell them, ‘Yes, maybe that’s so, but don’t forget there are many profounds of mind. And some profounds can be unthinking joy.’

In 1918 during a run-through of The Planets, Holst’s daughter Imogen watched the charwomen, in the concert hall, dancing in the aisles during Jupiter, the bringer of jollity. The cleaners surely felt a tune of mindless profounds exciting them. Whereas the nerves, of the Albert Hall toddler, were jangled by the mindful profounds of Holst’s women calling out.

Planetary states, abound.

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2 thoughts on “Blessay 25: Planetary States

  1. A lovely Blessay. Thank you.

    I was intrigued by your experience of having “The Planets” interrupted by extraneous noises. Back in the early 1980s I attended a Proms performance of the same piece (it was preceded by a performance of the Ives Fourth Symphony, which turned me into a life-long Ives-head, but that’s another story). The disruptive noises in my case were not those of a child in the audience, but rather a massive thunder-storm which troubled South Kensington that night. Magically, though, the great crashes occurred during the more dramatic moments in the music, almost as though celestially directed. The conductor that night was the wonderful Sir John Pritchard, who, several times, pointedly held up his hands to the heavens to thank them for their dramatic and appropriate interventions. By the time we got to the final movement, the storm was receding, and the women’s voices were enriched by distant, receding, rumblings. Perfect.

    “The Planets” is one of those pieces that, through too many repetitions and appearances, risks becoming over-familiar, even hackneyed (The “Four Seasons” is another). One needs to get over the oh-yes-this-a-lovely-old-thing feeling about it and listen anew. It is a sensational piece, rich and complex and challenging. In the first movement – Mars – we have a five-to-the-bar pulse throughout. It is relentless and uncompromising, but more than that with that odd rhythm: unwholesome and inhuman. When Holst returns to a five-in-the-bar rhythm in the last movement the effect is rather different. Yes, it is inhuman, but in a positive way: it is transcendent.

    • I would have loved to have been at that John Pritchard Concert. The sight of him holding up his hands to the heavens! Did he employ his baton to try and conduct the thunder storm? Only joking.
      Your right, The Planets is in danger of being taken for granted. A bit like The Rite of Spring. That you make it simply a showcase to show off your orchestra. However my Proms performance was far from that. I loved its pretty brisk tempo. The conductor never let the famous tunes sound like an alternative National anthem or over-English. In fact she sometimes conveyed an unsentimental Sibelian ruggedness.
      I wonder if she was aware of Holst’s own 1926 recordings? Holst takes things at a fast, but not rushed pace, with timings, in some movements, almost three minutes shorter than other recordings. The proms performance was a powerful and incisive reading complete with anxious star-child!
      Thanks for your response.

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